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Football: Authorities desperately seeking a solution to the unintended consequences of the free market; POST MODERN.

Byline: Hyder Jawad

In England, they are known as ticket touts; in America, scalpers. The terms, which are not widely accepted as compliments, refer to a sports profession that has grown out of all realistic proportions over the past 40 years and is now worth millions of pounds.

Anyone who has at least one ticket for a sports event can call himself a tout but the small-time amateurs - the badly dressed opportunists who try to sell their spares outside a football stadium - are not the ones the government is trying to outlaw.

It is the professional touts, the ones with the slick websites and contacts at the highest level of world football, who will soon find themselves in a collision course with the authorities. And when the collision occurs, there will only be one winner: the touts.

The problem for the government is that the advent of secondary markets, such as eBay, has made this industry even more lucrative and even more difficult to regulate. In the past, you needed a ticket before you could sell it; now all you need is to provide the impression that you have the ticket.

There are people out there willing to buy, willing to take the risk that the ticket for sale might actually exist, and, if it does exist, might actually be genuine. It is amazing what you can sell on an auction website.

If the ticket is not genuine, so what? At the Uefa Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan in Athens last May there were thousands more people inside the stadium than there had been tickets for sale.

Outside the stadium before the match, some touts were actually advertising tickets as forgeries, selling them for upwards of pounds 100, and convincing the purchaser that the fakes were still good enough to gain entry. More often than not, the forged ticket did the job.

It was all unedifying but, then, as the holder of a genuine ticket for the match, acquired through the appropriate channels, I am bound to say that. How different would I have felt if I had flown out to Athens not knowing whether I would see the match? Would I have bought a ticket - forged or otherwise - on eBay? I would like to think not. But I have to confess that I did buy my 1994 World Cup final ticket from an American "scalper". It was all legal, too. I turned up at the office in Hollywood at the agreed time, handed over double face value for two tickets, and spent the remainder of the day nervously guarding these two valuable pieces of paper.

To prove that the deal was "above board", the ticket "agency" - a.k.a., the tout - even provided me with a receipt. Oh, the irony.

But this was in the pre-internet days. This was when touting was easier for the punter but less lucrative for the tout. This was when the tournament organisers did not care where or how you acquired your ticket so long as you had a ticket. The internet has reconfigured the entire industry. According to an inquiry by Members of Parliament, some auction websites are colluding with ticket touting gangs to obtain tickets for the best events, which are then sold on to members of the public at highly-inflated prices.

Fearful that the 2012 Olympic Games in London will turn into Disneyland for touts, the government is keen to protect the most gullible of punters; those people desperate to be seen at the biggest events, no matter how much it costs.

The government should not worry. Olympic Games are not traditionally lucrative for touts. The World Cup is a different proposition, as are the Uefa Champions League final, the European Championships, and the FA Cup final. It is at these football events - the crown-jewel tournaments - that all self-respecting touts will make their real money.

Some will acquire their tickets from official sources. I was surprised at how many 2006 World Cup tickets, supposedly issued for high-ranking football officials, ended up in the hands of touts. The fluidity of the market is mind-blowing and that is why the touts can fly all over the world, staying at decent hotels, and wearing nice suits.

On one level, they provide a service. On another, they take advantage of the exaggerated imbalance between supply and demand. There is no typical tout just as there is no typical punter. There are good touts and bad touts, just as there are good policemen and bad policemen, good doctors and bad doctors, and good journalists and bad journalists.

The problem is that the average tout is one step ahead of the average official. Modern technology, which should have put touts out of business, has actually made their industry more lucrative. A quick look on eBay will reveal available tickets for all kinds of "sold-out" events and people willing to pay way over the odds.

It is called the free market. And, funnily enough, the people who are trying to make this market less free are the ones who usually acquire their tickets for free. Oh, the irony.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 24, 2007
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