The only football ticket I’ve ever bought from a tout was for the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and United at Wembley last year. It cost me more than a third of my monthly rent. After the tout had satisfied himself that I wasn’t a cop he told me that the ticket was ‘one and a half’ and that I could collect it from his pal. ‘My mate’s in the bookies, ’cause it’s bent round here with the Old Bill.’ In the bookmakers there were horses on the telly, beer in the air, and football on everyone’s lips. A thin man with an unlit cigarette in his mouth gave me a ticket in a Club Wembley branded envelope, and I handed over £150.
Buying multiple gig tickets on several credit cards and selling them for a profit is not only legal but smiled on: the Conservative MP Sajid Javid called such touts ‘entrepreneurs’. But touting football tickets is a criminal offence, punishable with a fine up to £5000 and a ban from all matches for up to ten years. Similar laws are in place for the Olympics, with a maximum fine of £20,000. The Met have been stepping up their arrests of football touts since the beginning of last year, on the reasonable assumption that they are likely to be involved in selling Olympic tickets too. ‘What we have uncovered shows that organised crime networks of the highest level which are known to us are involved in ticketing offences,’ according to the head of Operation Podium.
Many touts wouldn’t see it that way. One, whom I’ve seen at Queens Park Rangers, Arsenal and the Brixton Academy, says that touting is ‘just a fact of life’ but touts are ‘treated like rapists’. ‘They should be going after drug dealers,’ another tout told me outside QPR. ‘We’re just selling tickets to people who want to buy them.’ Though drug dealers could say much the same thing. And fans, like addicts, can be charged well over the odds – even more so, because supply is extremely limited.
With long-term, committed fan bases, Premier League football clubs have been able to sell season tickets and membership schemes, and several use loyalty points to prioritise sales to the most loyal fans. Such closed systems have high barriers to entry and are hard for touts to infiltrate (though one, Anthony O’Mahony, was found in February to have multiple membership cards for two London clubs). The Olympic organisers had no equivalent way to identify ‘genuine fans’ from touts, though there might be fewer tickets on the black market if the ballot that allocated them had been run better.
One thing you can say for the Olympic touts is that they make the corporate sponsors look almost reasonable. One touting website, with a sales line in Manchester but probably based overseas, was offering two closing ceremony tickets for £5939, online credit card transaction only. At that price, you’d be better off with an official package from Thomas Cook: two tickets, plus a night at the Ramada Hyde Park, for £3598.