• 2006-05-24

cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

On the face of it, the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship, held in Latvia over the past three weeks, was a success. There were no cataclysms, security measures went off smoothly, and the best team went home with the trophy. But glance deeper beneath the surface, and even the most impartial observer will admit that the tournament was an utter failure, particularly in economic terms. To be sure, no one is about to come forth and admit that money was lost, but anyone and everyone who watched the games on the television and saw the sheer number of empty seats realized that something was amiss.

What went wrong? Specifically, an enormous miscalculation was made on the part of championship organizers and the private sector: everyone believed hockey fans around the world were willing to pay any price 's just short of mortgaging their home 's to fly into Riga and watch the action. As a result, ticket prices were inflated to ludicrous levels, and the hospitality industry, drunk with visions of mountains of cash, doubled, even tripled, the cost of rooms. The anecdotal evidence is staggering, but the case of one Old Town hostel, which had dreamed of recouping its annual capital outlays in 17 days, is quite typical: come the start of the championship, it was empty.

The same held true for the upper end of the market 's hoteliers had to scramble to fill the beds. Ditto for restaurants and bars, where owners and managers shamelessly jacked up prices in the spurious belief that Scandinavian hockey fans (who are all rich, as it turns out) would pay weeks' worth of hard-earned savings to fly to Riga and watch Italy and Kazakhstan compete.
Floating on an errant cloud of euphoria, ticket agents, hotels and restaurants forgot a few important things: that hockey is a working-class sport, most of whose fans are middle income; that the IIHF tournament this year took place after the Olympics, which was stocked with more NHL superstars; that there is a world cup in soccer this summer; that not every economy in Europe grew by 10 percent last year; and finally, that Latvia is still the poorest country in the EU, and so many Europeans were expecting 's and rightly so 's to be able to make a relatively cheap trip to the Baltics and watch some hockey. Czech fans were so appalled by the prices that they found it cheaper to charter a plane to Riga and fly home after the game.

Finally, the ticket policy was completely botched. Instead of selling to individuals, myopic organizers took the easy way out and sold the lion's share of tickets to banks and corporations, who then tried to make a quick buck by reselling to fans. (In the West this is called scalping; in Latvia, making money.) Consumers reacted rationally when they refused to pay 25 lats (35 euros) for a below-average ticket. Watching Hansabanka hang up "tickets-on-sale-here" signs in its windows during the middle of the tournament elicited pure schadenfreude. In the end, tickets went unsold, game attendance was abysmal, and a few companies will have some explaining to do to shareholders.

In short, Riga lost a golden opportunity to make some money and bring in thousands of new visitors 's all because of simple greed. The question is whether the lesson has been learned, and if learned, whether it will be remembered in a few years' time when Riga hosts a similar championship. Don't count on it.