Tickets for marquee sporting events don’t come cheap. A top Premier League match, where a stadium can pack 40,000 to 60,000 football fans, easily runs £100 ($121) for club members, with prices far higher on the secondary market. A weekend at the just completed Silverstone Grand Prix starts at a mere £155, but prices quickly get into the thousands for the full hospitality experience.
Only at Wimbledon, though, is a readiness to spend on tickets nowhere near enough to get you through the gates. You must also be lucky or tenacious, and often both. And yet fans at the tournament and even those who watched on television noted all the empty seats as major stars such as Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and last year’s surprise US Open champ Emma Raducanu took to the court.
For die-hard tennis fans, or those who just relish a quintessentially English event, the hassle, uncertainty and queuing are all part of the experience and the tradition of the most storied tournament in the sport. But does it have to be?
There are a number of ways to get tickets to Wimbledon — where total capacity is around 42,000 — but none are straightforward. Pre-pandemic, fans from around the world could apply for tickets in a public ballot (a lottery) that closed the previous December. This year, those who had won the right to buy tickets in the cancelled 2020 tournament had them carried over so there was no new public ballot.
Wimbledon attendance is down 7% this year compared with 2019. That’s not surprising given how hard it is to get a ticket.
Members of the Lawn Tennis Association, which governs British tennis, could opt in to a ballot to purchase a pair of Wimbledon tickets. For those who remembered to opt in and were lucky enough to get an allocation, it was then a six-step process to respond to a series of emails telling you how to purchase tickets, then how to access them in the Wimbledon app. At each stage there was a time limitation (10 days for this or that). I had to set reminders in my phone.
Ballot-winners can’t be choosers and you take the date, court and seats you are offered or nothing. Returned tickets can be purchased by others online, but these go fast, and there’s no guarantee.
It would be nice to gift a pair of tickets to your significant other and tennis-mad child, but if you are the lucky ballot winner, you have to be at the tournament in person with your ID. And don’t just click on the Terms & Conditions without reading. Last year, fans took to Twitter to express their frustration when ticket purchases were cancelled because they had used the same credit card for more than one purchase, which was apparently verboten. (I couldn’t find the same restriction this year, but I might have missed it.)
There are other ways to get to Wimbledon if money or time are no object. You can apply for a debenture, which gives the holder the right to a premium seat each day for five straight tournament years. The price of a Centre Court debenture in the 2020 to 2025 series was £80,000 (which rose to £120,000 in the month before the tournament). No. 1 Court debentures in that series went for £46,000.
That can be a decent investment: Debentures are the only tickets that can be legally transferred or sold and the price is often right for the seller. Last I checked, debenture tickets for this week were selling at around £2,700 or more. Getting hold of a debenture, however, even if you have the dosh to splurge, is not easy and some people wait years for the opportunity.
The final option is to queue, and what could be more British? A 2017 queue was reportedly 7,000 people long. The queue for this year’s tournament began on the Friday before Monday’s start. Ground passes gained this way cost only £27 and the Championship releases 500 tickets for each of the three main show courts each day along with an unspecified number of ground passes. But — forgive the repetition — there are no guarantees of success. Each year there are stories of jolly campers and the excitement of the queue, but I know many more people who are daunted by the prospect or can’t take the time off work. I’m not surprised numbers are reportedly down this year.
The other three Grand Slam events in the tennis calendar operate ticketing systems that don’t require advanced knowledge of game theory or saintly levels of patience. The US Open is the easiest, perhaps to be expected given that the enormous Arthur Ashe stadium has a seating capacity of 23,000. But even the French and Australian tournaments, where the main court seats around 15,000, similar to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, offer straightforward ticket-purchasing options. All have systems that help fans access tickets, provide some flexibility but restrict the ability of profiteers and touts to corner resales.
One difference is Wimbledon is the only of the four grand slams run by a private member’s club. The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC) is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, with a limit of only 500 members. It can afford to be. It must also look after its corporate sponsors and debentures who pay for the full experience and the exclusivity of the event — and occasionally opt to hang out at the Gatsby Club or swill gin in hospitality sections instead of filling their premium seats in the show courts.
The profits from the Championships are transferred to the LTA to fund grass-roots tennis; that amounted to £52.1 million in 2019. A successful tournament means more money to spend on British tennis, though, to be clear, while there have been some improvements and more British players breaking into the top, tennis is still an expensive and exclusive sport in Britain compared to many other countries. And yet one of the objectives of the LTA, and the Championship, is to enhance accessibility.
For all the brilliance of the tournament, there’s more to be done on that front. The Ralph Lauren uniforms, the green and purple flower boxes, the recycling bins and the net-zero pledges project an image of both timeless tradition and hip modernity. But those rows of empty seats and the sight of long queues of punters reinforce a narrative that there is something both elitist and a bit backward about it all.
Wimbledon this year is as exciting as ever to watch, but also at odds with the sport’s attempts to be more inclusive. The overly complicated ticketing system recalls Mark Twain’s observation: The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of. Hopefully Wimbledon will prove him wrong.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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