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WCup ticket agency defiant despite empty seats

Despite empty seats and empty suites in stadiums, the agency which has exclusive World Cup ticketing rights says its results in South Africa can't be faulted.

sports Updated: Jun 18, 2010 21:00 IST

Despite empty seats and empty suites in stadiums, the agency which has exclusive World Cup ticketing rights says its results in South Africa can't be faulted. MATCH director Jaime Byrom defended his company's ticketing and hospitality operations, though it has scored a financial own goal at the world's most popular sports event.

"It's no secret we are going to make a loss," Byrom told The Associated Press, declining to specify the deficit. "The important thing to understand is that we are meeting our obligations." Byrom said MATCH should be judged on delivering ticket sales revenue for South Africa's local organizing committee that "generously surpassed" expectations, and its service to FIFA's commercial partners.

"We certainly don't feel that the results of 2010 can be faulted," he said.

The big loser, he accepted, was MATCH's corporate hospitality subsidiary, which never recovered from launching its sales program in September 2008 during the global banking crisis. "We could have picked a better moment, let's put it this way," said Byrom, a Mexican who runs the family business with brother Enrique from bases in England and Switzerland. Its Swiss partner is the Infront agency whose chief executive is Philippe Blatter, a nephew of FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Byrom believes the economic downturn won't last, and that MATCH Hospitality will recover the rest of the $120 million (euro97 million) it paid FIFA for a two-tournament deal at the next World Cup in Brazil. "It's a game of two halves," said Byrom, who is expecting better than to break even. "I am not that humble. I want to be able to make a profit, a sufficiently large profit in 2014 to make up for our losses in 2010."

Byrom spoke at MATCH's offices in a sleek business complex in the high-end Sandton suburb of Johannesburg. During the interview, he only once acknowledged a television just out of eyeshot showing the game between Spain and Switzerland in Durban that completed the first set of group-stage matches. "That's nice. That's what I look at, when I look at a match," Byrom said, referring to a ground-level camera shot framing a player against the towering _ and packed _ grandstands at Moses Madhiba Stadium.

"I don't look so much at what's going on on the pitch, but the terraces." The full stadium for Wednesday's match was not typical, when four of the first 16 matches played to at least 10,000 empty seats. Byrom said those were daytime kickoffs featuring "not particularly exciting" teams playing in provincial cities. Attendance figures have confused fans who were told by FIFA that, after a difficult 18-month sales program, the World Cup kicked off with almost all the 2.9 million tickets sold.

A sophisticated ordering and distribution system means MATCH knows who has failed to turn up _ if not always why. Many are South African residents who didn't use discounted seats sold to local businesses and government departments after international sales fell below expectations.

Byrom said some overseas fans, who paid between $80 and $160 (euro65 and euro130) for a group game, didn't travel to South Africa where their tickets awaited collection.

"This World Cup is not within walking distance of half the participating teams," he said, citing the differences compared to the 2006 World Cup, which was staged in the excellent location of Germany and happier economic times.

Without having an actual ticket, stay-at-home fans could not sell them on to a friend, scalper or another agency not licensed by FIFA. Byrom does not apologize for isolating the so-called secondary market _ the "usual suspects," he says.

MATCH, which has 400 full-time staff still hard at work in South Africa, is not the only loser at the 2010 World Cup. Though FIFA is secure with commercial earnings of at least euro3.2 billion (euro2.6 billion), agencies which paid MATCH for the right to sell their own travel packages also appear to have had a tough time. Had MATCH been too ambitious? Byrom accepted it was "a true representation" of the hospitality sector.

He said lessons will be learned for the 2014 tournament in Brazil _ another World Cup played during the southern hemisphere winter in a long-haul destination with a reputation for urban crime. With his experience selling trips, tickets and corporate packages at seven World Cups, Byrom believes MATCH's reputation will survive. "We will come out at the end of this World Cup ... stronger in our relationship with our clients," Byrom said. "I have no reason to believe that won't be the case."