Fiji Win Sevens 26-19 as Hong Kong’s Annual Party Draws to Close

Fiji battled back from trailing 19-0 at halftime to beat Wales in the final of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament yesterday in front of a capacity crowd of 40,000.

Bankers and brokers defied job cuts to snap up tickets for the annual three-day tournament where Hong Kong hosted a record 28 teams. Fiji won 26-19 to take the cup in what is the premier event on the international circuit.

The Hong Kong Sevens, in its 38th year, is the city’s biggest sporting event and annual party, drawing visitors from across the world and filling bars and hotels in the former British colony. Websites offering tickets asked more than three times the official HK$1,500 ($193) price for the event, which featured a performance by 1960s icons The Beach Boys.

“Tickets are way too expensive here,” said Ben Salabogi, 30, a visiting Fijian wearing a garland and a grass skirt who was negotiating with touts for a day pass outside the stadium. Prices from scalpers for a day pass were double what it cost for three days at the Las Vegas event, although “it was more fun drinking here -- I lost count of my beers last night,” Salabogi said.

Touts lined the pavement outside the stadium March 23 asking for as much as HK$2,000 for a daily pass.

Putting the ticket prices aside, Salabogi and six relatives made the trip to the Hong Kong event for both the rugby and the party, he said.

Costumed revelers queued up to enter the stadium. One group of seven women were clad in yellow uniforms labeled “Lance Armstrong’s Drug Support Crew,” and hats sporting the slogan “Liestrong.”

A Cult

“It’s become almost a cult,” said Richard Bennett, who retired last year as general counsel for tournament sponsor HSBC Holdings Plc and was part of the organizing committee from 1983 to 1996. “Hong Kong is a work place and people focus on that, but for one weekend a year the community lets its hair down and enjoys.”

The event is part of a nine-tournament series held around the world, with New Zealand leading the standings after the first six legs.

Tickets up for public balloting were more than 12 times oversubscribed. The South stand of the stadium, known for hosting some of the rowdiest spectators with many in costume, fills by mid-morning.

“You go back to the start and there wasn’t the South stand or razzmatazz but there was still that general feeling,” said Bennett, who has attended at least 25 of the previous tournaments.

Bull Market

Hong Kong, the world’s fourth-biggest equity market by value, is hosting the Sevens after more than 147,000 jobs were cut in the past year by financial companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc as regulations tighten and fees decline. Still, global stock markets have staged a rally from last year, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index approaching a record.

That’s abetting the bull market mentality that accompanies the event.

“It’s a great event,” said Neil Lithgow, a director at Aspire Mining Ltd., who’s going to the Sevens for the first time. “People go, get dressed up and have fun.”

This year, HSBC doubled the size of its Sevens Village, a free facility located across the street from the stadium, to accommodate those without tickets. The venue may get an additional 10,000 fans, said Jonathan Hamp, head of commercial at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.

Weekend Visitors

“Every year during the Sevens, there’s a spike during the weekend for visitors coming to our hotel,” said Wendy Lee, a spokeswoman for the Excelsior, which is located in Causeway Bay, a 15-minute walk from the Hong Kong Stadium. The hotel, which has 884 rooms, will have occupancy rates exceeding 90 percent, she said.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., a co-sponsor for the event, had record sales for a Sevens package it sold, according to Simon Large, the general manager for marketing.

A public ballot was introduced for the first time this year for 4,000 tickets. Hong Kong rugby clubs were given 18,000 tickets.

“Hong Kong Sevens is a big ticket,” said John, a tout who declined to give his last name, and was handing out his name card at a mining conference in the city. “People have spare tickets, I buy from them. People want tickets, I sell to them.”

Biggest Parties

Spectators will take part in some of the city’s biggest parties. Carlsberg sold 320,000 pints of beer in the stadium during last year’s tournament, spokeswoman Lois Wan of Carlsberg Hong Kong Ltd said. At least 9,000 hot dogs and 21,000 pies will be used to satiate hungry fans this year, according to caterer Holiday Inn Golden Mile.

Sevens “gives you the feeling of a big party,” said James Tien, the chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. “It’s a carnival.”

The Hong Kong Sevens was started in 1976 by A.D.C. “Tokkie” Smith, a tobacco executive and head of the city’s rugby union. Sevens is an abridged version of rugby, with seven men on each side competing for two 7-minute sessions. The finals will comprise two 10-minute rounds. It tends to be a faster-paced game than the rugby union traditional format.

This year’s event will comprise 16 teams for the global tournament. A separate 12 teams will fight to get promotion into the core competition for the London Sevens, which is taking place in May.

Extra Impetus

Fiji fans have an extra impetus to support their team as a national holiday is declared if they win the Hong Kong Sevens, the rugby union’s Hamp said.

“The Sevens has become a much more competitive tournament than it used to be,” Bill English, finance minister of New Zealand, said in an interview on March 19. “We used to be able to assume we’d win it when we show up. But in Wellington, the New Zealand team lost to Kenya, so I wouldn’t want to predict the outcome. I certainly support our team.”

Rugby Sevens will make its Olympic debut in Brazil in 2016 after the International Olympics Committee voted to re-introduce rugby in October 2009, according to the IOC website. Rugby union, with 15 players per team, was played in the Olympics in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924.

Peter Bennett, a retired executive of Gottex Fund Management Holdings, decided to organize the Sevens’s first charity box supported by the Hong Kong Rugby Union to raise money for four local charities. Pledges from donors and sponsors plus proceeds from auctions may bring in more than HK$2 million, Bennett estimated.

“I felt the Sevens was this wonderful event of fun but it’s all about corporate entertainment,” Bennett said in a telephone interview. “It didn’t seem to me that it was as much about Hong Kong as it should be.”