July 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Tickets on ourselves

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

OK. Here we are. Just click on this … little map of Victoria. Uh huh. Yes, I am an Australian Cricket Family member. And this … is my password. So, what happens now? Hmm. Dum de dum. I’m waiiiting …

It was the date we’d all been waiting for: 1 June. The day that tickets to the summer Ashes Tests went on sale. Albeit that “sale” usually conjures the image of money being proffered in exchange for goods. Here was a revolutionary new concept: loyal customers, all of whom had troubled to join a virtual body called the Australian Cricket Family, eager, nay desperate, to part with their cash, but being forced to sit in front of frozen computer screens for hour upon interminable hour.

After half a day, an Australian Cricket Family First Party would have won the balance of power in the Senate. After a couple of days, by which time ticket allocations were almost exhausted, John Howard was professing to “feel sorry” for Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland. Amazing how he throws sorrys around when they mean damn all, eh? And, fair dinkum, scalpers had walked away with fistfuls of tickets; people who’d attended the Boxing Day of the Melbourne Test for decades had come up with squat … and he felt sorry for James Sutherland? It was the political equivalent of seeing both batsmen at the same end and somehow giving away six overthrows. He would more intelligently have offered Snowy Hydro shares in lieu of cricket tickets unbought.

At last. Maybe this time. Click on “MCG”. Click on “Day 1”. Click on “2 persons”. And … what do you mean “Event not known”? It’s the Boxing Day Test, for Bradman’s sake!

It wasn’t quite fair to call it a fiasco. There were always going to be more people than tickets: there had to be a system. And it was heady to see cricket so popular in medias football res. Alas, the well-meaning idea of an Australian Cricket Family created an impression of order and inclusion where, it turned out, there was none. Instead, like so many families, it fell apart when most needed.

Nor was it fair to blame Cricket Australia for the fact that, in order to serve the biggest venue, Melbourne, Ticketmaster had a system so slow you could almost hear gears grinding over the sound of your own teeth gnashing. Because of Australian cricket’s antediluvian federal system, ticket agencies answer to state associations. Once the process began, all Sutherland could say was that it was going swimmingly, and that ten tickets a second were being sold. But a distant chorus was audible: They’re not being sold to me! And what did this drunk’s-lamppost stat mean anyway, without comparison, devoid of context? Google gives 337 matches for “Gideon Haigh Test hundred before lunch”. That doesn’t mean I’ve made one.

What’s going on? Can I go back … what? Now the damn screen’s frozen. Help!

The Australian Cricket Family’s ostensible brief was to ensure that local supporters gained preference in ticket allocations over … let’s be frank, English supporters. You had to provide an Australian email address, and nominate your favourite player – meaning Australian player.

The impediments to English fans, though, weren’t all that effectual: how hard was it to get a mate in Oz to sign up for you? And exactly how laudable was the objective anyway? England’s noisy but neighbourly Barmy Army has followed their team round on their last three Australian sojourns, maintaining good humour through defeat after defeat. But now that England hold the Ashes – which is precisely why tickets are so popular – their fans, prepared to travel 12,000 miles and pay whatever it takes to see their team, are to be frozen out. Ricky Ponting says he wants the Boxing Day crowd to be “a sea of green and gold”. The Melbourne Test, then, is not to be about cricket at all; it is to be about ’Straya.

Yes, yes, terms and conditions, fine. Now, if I just click on this … no. No! What do you mean, I’ve bought two tickets to Richard Clayderman at Crown Casino?!

Half-remembered snatches of Year 10 Economics proved amazingly useful: “Hey,” it was advanced, “The Ashes is a ‘hot ticket’. Not everyone who wanted to see U2 could, could they? It’s just market forces, supply outstripping demand and all that.”

However, after a day, the odium shifted to touts selling tickets on eBay. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, one was shocked – shocked! People who had tickets were selling tickets to people who wanted them, and at a profit! But why not? Given that the primary market had left such a huge asymmetry, why should a secondary market not operate? It’s just supply-and-demand, innit? Yes, scalpers pocket a big fat mark-up. But so do ticket agencies. And at least scalpers don’t leave you staring out the window for two days.

Cricket Australia then decreed that it would dishonour tickets bought from scalpers – which, under the tickets’ terms and conditions, it’s entitled to do. But who would that penalise? Not the scalper: he’ll have his money. It’ll be some poor mug from Slough who’s paid for the trip of a lifetime, only to find himself turned, red-faced, from the gate. We will decide who comes to our Test matches and the circumstances in which they come. No wonder John Howard feels simpatico with James Sutherland.

I went to the toilet, didn’t hit Refresh, and now I’m back where I’m started!

Who to blame? What about members, hogging all that space? But Melbourne Cricket Club members wait 25 years for election. Not even Ticketmaster takes that long. What about corporates, swilling chardonnay and asking, “What exactly is ‘LBW’?” But the heavy levies on corporates are one of the reasons tickets in Australia remain so commendably affordable. In fact, one can’t even be too harsh on Cricket Australia, whose intentions were generally pure, and on Sutherland, a competent executive and a decent man. The pity is not that people were pissed off – some constituency was bound to be offended – but that they were pissed off so avoidably.

It’s been days and I’m still here. They say there are some general admission tickets left for day four at Perth, and I’ve got to get something. But the system is still busy. Is anybody there? Is anybody listening?

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