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FIFA made fundamental errors on World Cup tickets
FIFA is guaranteed massive revenue from the World Cup, primarily through billions of dollars in commercial and television rights, that will fill its coffers for the next four years. But that doesn’t hide the fact that soccer’s governing body has made basic errors in the ticketing structure for the first African edition of the world’s most watched sporting event.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter has steadfastly supported holding the soccer spectacle in Africa despite a flood of negative reporting from Europe that said the tournament would be a disaster and that nothing would be ready in time. Those naysayers have so far been proved very wrong–the 10 stadiums, half of them stunning new venues–are ready way ahead of kickoff on June 11.
Blatter has gained plenty of kudos and political support from his support of Africa but the organisation he leads seems to has allowed what many critics would call greed to impede its ability to make calculations that would seem fundamental.
FIFA’s system of selling most tickets until last week over the internet showed a basic misunderstanding of South Africa’s black fans, who make up the bulk of football supporters in this country. They are poor, they don’t have bank accounts and they do not have access to the internet. This was pointed out to FIFA last year, when ticketing started, but it only took notice in the last month or so.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke even apologised for the error. “The approach at the beginning was not the most friendly system for South Africa and South Africans. But there is always time to learn,” he said last week. Only just in time it seems–he spoke 62 days before the tournament begins.
But that was not the only error that ignored African realities. This World Cup has been marketed as not just for South Africa but for the soccer-mad continent as a whole. Yet only a trickle of fans are expected, even from the five other qualifying African teams. Once again the reasons are simple and economic.
Even for the minority of Africans with decent incomes, travelling to South Africa is prohibitively expensive because scheduled flights go mostly via Europe and accommodation costs will be high. Again FIFA only woke up to this recently. It promised to organise direct charters but there is little evidence that this is either happening yet or likely to make a difference.
These miscalculations increased the chances that World Cup crowds would be mostly Europeans or well-heeled local whites with none of the incredible atmosphere that comes from African black fans, dressed in the most exotic of outfits, singing, vibing and playing trumpets in the stands.
The miscalculation became even more damaging when it emerged that high South African prices, a global economic crisis and alarmist foreign reporting about violent crime would cut foreign attendance by half. Chief local organiser Danny Jordaan said last week the likely total was more like 200,000 foreigners than the 450,000 originally estimated.
Valcke has tried to explain this with the argument that Europeans get too much football already and are too blase to attend the World Cup. He and Jordaan have also repeatedly denounced European and particularly British reporters for suggesting fans would be lucky to escape South Africa with their lives–which seems to have been particularly influential in Germany.
Whatever the reason, FIFA was left with 500,000 tickets on its hands two months before the tournament, including many returned from abroad or unsold corporate hospitality packages badly hit by the economic crisis. At which point, organisers launched an appeal to South Africans to buy up the tickets and fill the stadiums.
Fortunately for FIFA they have responded and World Cup fever seems finally to have hit South Africa. But this seems primarily as a result of tickets finally becoming available for over-the counter cash for the first time last week. So many South Africans turned up that computers crashed and fights broke out in the queues, where fans waited for up to 15 hours to get a ticket. More than 100,000 tickets were sold in less than two days and many matches are sold out.
South Africans have now bought over a million seats–more than the Germans at this point for the World Cup they hosted in 2006.
The pace of sales has now slowed, with 145,000 tickets sold in the first four days. But sales points opened at supermarkets on Monday and Jordaan says more South Africans will buy when they get paid at the end of the month.
But doesnt all this prove that FIFA made a basic mistake at the beginning? Why did it take so long to adjust to African realities? At least, it seems, it may have learned some lessons. Valcke says FIFA will rethink its ticketing strategy for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, another country filled with poor soccer fanatics.