Inside Wimbledon's Black Market Ticket Trade
Ticket touts are as much a part of Wimbledon as strawberries and cream.
Every morning of Wimbledon fortnight, streams of people flood through the barriers of Southfields station and up Wimbledon Park Road towards the gates of the All England Club. But for all of Wimbledon's expensively produced PR campaigns, many seasoned Wimbledon-goers' first recognisable sight or sound of the Championships is not Pimms or even the manicured gleam of meticulously hewn grass. It's the touts.
"Any spare tickets?"
"Tickets to buy or sell?"
The touts lurk among the relentless onrush of eager ticket holders, loitering outside the cafes, bus stops and advertisements which mark the annual commute from Southfields to the All England Club, and they're as much a fixture of Wimbledon as strawberries and creams.
At first glance, the touts would appear to be wasting their time. Few passers-by pay them a second glance. But the Wimbledon ticket trade is a business worth hundreds of thousands every year, despite attempts to police it.
Touting has taken place ever since live music and sporting events started selling tickets, but the sheer exclusivity of show court tickets at Wimbledon drives demand and hence profit margins. This is after all, an event where the public ballot begins an entire 11 months before the tournament begins, and every year thousands camp on the streets for up to two nights to get on Centre Court.
"Working the streets is a fairly easy way to make quick money," said one regular tout who spoke to VICE Sports on condition of anonymity. "There's so many people willing to pay five or 10 times the regular price of a ticket in cash, especially as the tournament goes on. First or second round centre court tickets go for a few hundred while the cheapest men's finals tickets are worth around £175, but you can sell them for a grand or two without a problem. Online you can get far bigger profit margins."
Many street touts work for small businesses, trading Centre Court debenture tickets. These are issued every five years, guaranteeing holders a ticket for every single day of competition during that period. For the All England Club, it's a major cash cow, aimed at the corporate market. The 2,500 debenture tickets sold for the 2016-2020 period are worth £50,000 apiece, but many are bought by touts who then sell the individual tickets at inflated prices. With Wimbledon allowing the resale of debenture tickets, it's a popular practice, although selling on the streets is strictly illegal.
"You can make at least £15,000 on a single debenture without really trying," another tout said.
In addition, every day Wimbledon issues several hundred Centre Court and No.3 Court tickets online via its official supplier Ticketmaster, with the aim of making tickets accessible for those who did not succeed in the ballot and are unable to queue. The resale of these tickets is not allowed by Wimbledon but the vast majority are snapped up by touts.
In an attempt to crack down on street touting in the past three years, the local councils around Wimbledon announced a plan to transform the All England Club and the zones around Southfields and Wimbledon Park tube station into tout-free zones, via stricter monitoring in partnership with the Metropolitan police.
Anyone caught selling tickets on the streets faces immediate arrest, while anyone suspected of doing so can be ordered by police to leave the area for 24 hours, or else face arrest. Fans who are believed to have purchased a ticket from a tout or secondary sources can be refused entry.
However, many touts have simply responded by taking their business online, selling their tickets via websites such as Gumtree, Viagogo and StubHub. On these websites tickets for Sunday's men's singles final are already available for upwards of £3,000, almost twenty times the normal value. Some are already selling for £21,000, prices which are set to skyrocket further if either Roger Federer or Andy Murray reach the final.
"If it's a Federer-Murray final then expect to see some tickets changing hands for six figure sums," one online tout, going by the name of Nick, told VICE Sports. "Most finals tickets available are either debentures or bought from people who got them in the ballot. You'll find people willing to sell for a small profit but you can then make ten times as much by reselling it on. Earlier in the tournament, the standard practice is to use multiple credit cards and identities to buy tickets each day from Ticketmaster. That's the easiest way of overcoming the limits of how many tickets you can buy."
Nick explains that due to the police presence around the All England Club, he communicates with potential buyers online and then arranges a pick-up and payment in cash at central locations such as Charing Cross or Waterloo.
The All England Club is well aware of such practices. Since 1990, various measures have been put in place to try and crack down on touting.
"We monitor all channels for resales, and where possible track and cancel tickets not sold through official means," Rhian Evans, a spokeswoman for the All England Club, told VICE Sports. "The AELTC takes active steps to monitor and control sales including those made via shops and internet sites, and all Wimbledon tickets, apart from Debentures which are clearly marked, will only be valid if sold either by AELTC or by one of its licensed and authorized agents. Unauthorized sale or transfer of tickets immediately invalidates them."
However, in reality, much of the time there's little they can do.
"Unless you post a photocopy of the ticket or the ticket number online, they really can't tell whether it's been bought via secondary sources," Nick explains. "It's not illegal either, just against Wimbledon's rules. The only problem comes when you're reselling a balloted ticket which has someone's name on it. But there's multiple entrances to Wimbledon, and not all of them check carefully so you can tell buyers to scout around for who's checking and who isn't, and they'll be unlikely to get caught. The majority of people are willing to take the risk, especially when it's the final."
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TOUT PRICE INFLATION
MEN'S FINAL, 10th July 2016
Face Value: £175
Viagogo/Gumtree/StubHub: £3,000 - £21,000
WOMEN'S FINAL, 9th July 2016
Face Value: £145
Viagogo/Gumtree/StubHub: £1,000 - £2,000
MEN'S SEMI-FINALS, 8th July 2016
Face Value: £145
Viagogo/Gumtree/StubHub: £2,000 - £4,000