Rugby Fans to Sidestep Protesters on Hong Kong Election Day

March 23 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Rosalind Chin reports on the increasing popularity of rugby in Asia. About 40,000 fans will pack the Hong Kong Stadium in the city’s Causeway Bay district for this weekend's three-day rugby Sevens competition. The event offers the biggest total prize on the Sevens circuit, at $150,000. The winning team takes home $100,000. (Source: Bloomberg)

Hong Kong partygoers and sports fans may cross paths with street protesters this weekend as the city’s chief executive election coincides with its biggest sporting and social event, the rugby Sevens.

About 40,000 fans will pack the Hong Kong Stadium in the city’s Causeway Bay district for the three-day competition ending on March 25. That day, at least two local groups have said they will hold demonstrations in the neighboring Wan Chai area, whose bars and clubs draw many post-tournament revelers.

“Election, what election?” said Sam Tuckey, a British tourist who flew in from London for the Sevens. “I had no idea -- but then I’m not usually aware when there are elections in the U.K.”

The crowds present a potential challenge for Hong Kong’s police, who must also ensure security for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang, arriving tomorrow for a two-day visit. Protesters will congregate near an exhibition center where a 1,200-member committee will meet to elect a successor to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang.

“Police will deploy sufficient manpower to ensure that the final day of Hong Kong Sevens and the chief executive election are smoothly held,” the police said in an e-mailed statement.

More than 200,000 pints of beer are consumed annually at the Hong Kong Sevens, which is characterized by its festival- like atmosphere, with many fans attending in fancy dress.

Tourist Boost

The 37-year-old tournament is the largest on the world circuit for sevens, a shortened version of 15-man rugby union. The event drew 21,000 overseas visitors last year, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union Chairman Trevor Gregory said.

All Black legend John Kirwan, in Hong Kong as a rugby ambassador for HSBC Holdings Plc, remembers the tournament’s humble beginnings in the pre-professional era.

“I was here right in the beginning when we used to drink all week before the game,” Kirwan, record-holder for the number of tries scored in first-class rugby in New Zealand, said in an interview today. “I played here four times. It’s the only tournament I’ve never won but it was always great fun.”

Tourists spent an estimated HK$282 million ($36 million) in the city last year during the Sevens, while locals injected almost double that amount into the economy, Gregory said, citing statistics from the city’s tourism board.

Besides beer, 60,000 glasses of Pimms cocktail, 10,000 glasses of wine and 40,000 cans of soft drinks are consumed at the stadium during the event, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Schmooze Fest

The tournament is a boon for Hong Kong food, beverage and hospitality operators.

The Excelsior Hotel, within walking distance of the stadium, is “running extremely high occupancy,” said Wendy Lee, spokeswoman for operator Mandarin Oriental International Ltd. The hotel’s basement sports bar Dickens Bar is also “very busy as a lot of rugby fans like to come for the atmosphere,” she said.

The city’s finance and business people use the three-day event as an opportunity to entertain themselves, their clients and colleagues.

Credit Suisse Group AG (CS), a former sponsor of the tournament, holds an investors’ forum in the week preceding the competition. The company, along with businesses including Swire Pacific Ltd. (1972) and UBS AG, has hired a corporate suite at the stadium for the weekend.

Ticket Scalpers

“The Hong Kong Sevens offers a great opportunity to socialize with our clients in a relaxed setting,” said Robert Gazzi, Hong Kong markets leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “The whole atmosphere is like a carnival. Everybody’s relaxed and having a good time, unless their team is taking a beating on the field.”

Gazzi’s company has a corporate suite at the tournament.

Tickets for the Sevens went on sale to the public on Jan. 14, after presale allocations were opened to rugby clubs and overseas agents in November, and were sold out on the day. The price for the three days is HK$1,500, compared with HK$1,250 in 2009.

Unofficially, tickets were still available as of today, with online websites offering them for as much as 320 pounds ($508) for a three-day pass.

Organizers have introduced a system that could help them track the source of tickets if they discover them being sold on the black market.

Tracking System

“Scalping has become a fact of life but hopefully the tracking system will help,” Sean Moore, managing director of Elite Step Asia Ltd., the public relations company for the tournament, said.

The Hong Kong event offers the biggest total prize on the Sevens circuit, at $150,000. The winning team takes home $100,000. Sevens has been included in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The shortened version of the game will ensure the future of rugby, and the Olympics will help take the game to the world, Kirwan said.

“Asia will be the sevens place -- the people are genetically suited to the game,” said Kirwan, who played 63 tests for New Zealand’s All Blacks and coached the 15-man teams of Japan and Italy. “And now, with the Olympics, governments are going to put in money -- they’re going to say: here’s the money, go and win the games.”

New Zealand, world champions in the 15-man game, won last year’s tournament and lead the HSBC World Series standings with 92 points, followed by Fiji on 87.

Police said they received notification from one group that it planned a “public meeting-cum-procession” on March 25 in Hong Kong.

People Power and the League of Social Democrats are among the groups planning protests. More than 1,000 people are expected to gather outside the election venue, Avery Ng, the league’s vice chairman, said in a phone interview today.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stan James in Hong Kong at Sjames2@bloomberg.net; Natasha Khan in Hong Kong at nkhan51@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hwee Ann Tan at hatan@bloomberg.net

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