I was in the States last year listening to a guy giving out about the war in Iraq. His argument was perfectly valid: "We spend so much money on the military, yet we are slashing education budgets throughout the country. No wonder we've got smart bombs and stupid children."
Not our lot, they can buy and sell anyone or anything. Yet the public fora would have them portrayed as the most sinned against socio-economic group in the country. Why? Because the price of a schoolboy ticket has gone up to €40. Bless, how will darling Tarquin manage to get to the November internationals in two months' time? He will do like any other schoolboy on the make. He'll scab one, he'll trick one up from somewhere. He won't pay for it, his old man or somebody will cover that or he might even have the dough himself. It might cost a few more quid but he will join 1,999 other boys and girls who will have availed of the opportunity to buy a ticket and who will wander along to the Aviva on match day. Unless, of course, they sell them first.
More on that later but first a quick lesson on economics. Ibn Taymiyyah, a Muslim philosopher, beat the father of economic reasoning Adam Smith to the punch on the rudiments of supply and demand by about 500 years. "If desire for goods increases while its availability decreases, its price rises. On the other hand, if availability of the good increases and the desire for it decreases, the price comes down." Simple.
Smith, five centuries later, had a more succinct grasp on how our economies worked in his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations. His successors took it to the next level expounding the notion of price elasticity – a gauge to know how strongly the quantity demanded or supplied changes when the price changes. All sections of the markets were analysed on the fundamental of trade. What happens when the monopolist decides to increase the price of its product? How will this affect the amount of their goods that customers purchase?
Well, the monopolist has put up its prices by a goodly degree. The supply has diminished hugely (31,000 seats) and people are jumping up and down over the hike. What the hell did you expect? When they announced that all they were going to build was a 51,000 seater stadium and the market for the previous four years had 82,000, you didn't need to be Friedman or Keynes to tell what was going to happen. Although even they would have difficulty explaining this particular economic model and what exactly drives it.
I can explain it anecdotally. A while back, a friend of mine was explaining to me how shite Ireland were. I think it was after a Scotland game when we were booed off the pitch. I got an hour on how crap everyone was, how low the entertainment quotient was and how we should have been ashamed of ourselves to put out a performance like that in a green jersey. "Yez were a disgrace... would yeh have two tickets for the next one?" We were collecting wooden spoons quicker than Fanny Cradock and yet every championship match was always a sell out. How do you reconcile that? You can by looking at the simple fact that people turn up and watch the team play whether it is playing well or badly – they do so because a championship match or November international is so much more than a rugby match – it is an amalgam of a national pride and fervour and an outpouring of support for a national side. It's a prestigious sporting event and it cross-pollinates with, and lends itself nicely to, a particular Irish sense of socialness and society. The opportunity to meet and greet and catch up with people of their own code and, let's face it, a chance to go out and drink alcohol – lots of it. These days are pin-pointed in the calendar from a long time off. People travel from all over the globe and the country to coincide with an international. It's more than just a game of rugby. Despite attempts to the contrary by the governing bodies, rugby union by and large is not an inclusive sport. Universality has eluded it and its domain is populated by the middle class who generally go to private schools and, in newspaper parlance, are categorised as ABC1. If the price of a ticket goes up by €20 it is not going to bother them that much. They will give up an awful lot before they are unable to go to "the match". The fella with less money in his pocket will still go. The notion that you have to spend a huge amount of money to buy tickets en bloc or as a four-match package doesn't wash. People are inventive and clever enough in clubs or groups to get together and pick one or maybe two of four this November and let another group go to the other two matches. Yes, maybe one individual will have to write the cheque but the tickets always get disseminated and distributed and the money comes back in to that person. There is always a form of equilibrium and people always manage to get their hands on tickets.
If people decide to vote with their feet there will be plenty of people queuing up to take their seats – the IRFU know this as well as anyone else. They know their market. They know that 9,500 10-year seats sold in a thrice at €15,000 a pop. There is still a waiting list for people who missed the boat. For five or six matches a year, that ain't cheap. The IRFU also know that debenture holders in Croke Park who had an option to buy tickets for the rugby did so emphatically where 8,500 GAA supporters took up 100 per cent of their entitlement for the historic England game. They fell away to a not inconsiderable 65-70 per cent for later matches – a latent audience.
I think equilibrium, in terms of ticket pricing, will be achieved within the Six Nations. Wales, England and France all have 80,000 seaters and even they, with their supply, cannot afford to up their ticket prices that much. The IRFU have looked at their model and priced in what they need to charge to try and keep abreast of what those nations net. It fits nicely into the equation. The 30,000 seats that they lose out on is made up by the €40/50 extra they charge on the ticket. Their model is absolutely right. Right in the sense that they have a new stadium and over 100 professional players to pay for. If they priced their tickets at the same level as their Welsh, English or French contemporaries they would not be able to do so.
The silly season will be over soon. The "build it and they will come" model will soon come to fruition. The four November matches and two Six Nations games will be sold out no matter how pricey the tickets have become. People will grumble but they will pay in the end.
Truth is, they are expensive. It always has been an expensive day out. If I was the IRFU I wouldn't test the price elasticity of demand any further because that would lead to people staying at home. Nothing much happens until the status quo becomes more painful than change. In other words, don't touch the prices for another five or six years, lads. Schoolboys don't let anyone else but yourselves use your tickets – people out there think you are being disenfranchised.
PS My discus and golf coaches always told me to watch women in those chosen fields. No raw power or strength but usually wonderful technique and timing compensated. If you are watching the Women's Rugby World Cup, the really good sides don't play bosh rugby like the men, but their off-loads, timing and lines are just as good.