Olympics tickets available to public often out of reach

SEATTLE (MCT) — Heather Bailey gave up. After a year spent pursuing tickets to February’s Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics through official sources, the Expedia employee from Federal Way, Wash., will put her dreams of attending a rare close-to-home Olympics in the hands of scalpers.

Jim Jeffreys got lucky — sort of. The Seattle school administrator landed $2,100 worth of Olympic tickets, then struggled to find a way to use them in a city where basic hotels are charging more than $1,000 a night.

Ed Dooley got mad. After scoring four tickets, then giving up on lodging, the retired chief financial officer from Sequim spent the better part of a year writing letters and making angry phone calls about an Olympic ticketing and accommodations system he calls a classic, unregulated monopoly.

Dooley’s conclusion: “I think they’re a bunch of bandits.”

Welcome to the dark side of the Olympic flame. The Games get lofty billing as a celebration of human achievement — an amateur sports event that builds community and transcends class barriers. It seemed a natural fit for progressive Vancouver, where organizers promised the most fan-friendly Games ever.

The truth: The public will be a bit player in the made-for-TV drama unfolding in Vancouver and Whistler. Consider:

—In spite of record demand, fans seeking tickets to premier events such as medal-round hockey games will have access to only about one-quarter of the seats normally available in Vancouver’s 19,000-seat General Motors Place. Sponsors, media and VIPs take the lion’s share.

—Frustrated Northwest fans, who produced the largest ticket demand outside Canada, are lucky to have landed any tickets at all. Only 2 percent of the 1.6 million total — about 35,000 tickets — were initially reserved by Vancouver organizers for the U.S. public. For the gold-medal men’s hockey game, America got 76 seats.

—Fans lucky enough to get tickets can find themselves frozen out on lodging. The 20,000 most-desirable hotel rooms in Vancouver and Whistler were set aside long ago for corporate sponsors and other officials — at relative bargain prices.

—One private travel monopoly, CoSport/Jet Set Sports of New Jersey, was granted nearly three times as many tickets as the U.S. general public. The companies place many of those tickets in luxury hotel packages that range from about $5,000 per person into the millions of dollars for corporate clients.

All of this leaves athletes’ families, as in past Olympics, battling for the few remaining rooms and extra tickets when prices peak, just before the Feb. 12-28 Games.

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When Vancouver won the Olympic bid in 2003, a stench of corruption still lingered in the Olympic world from the trial of two Salt Lake City Organizing Committee members accused of bribing International Olympic Committee members to win the Games for Utah.

From the start, Vancouver pledged to host a Games more open and affordable.

“Feelings in Vancouver were that ‘this is a different city, and we are going to host a kinder and gentler Olympics,’ ” says author and Olympics critic Helen Lenskyj, of the University of Toronto. But much of the plan used to gain public support for the Games has proved to be wishful thinking. Organizers promised gold-medal men’s hockey game tickets costing as little as $29, with a top price of $277. They actually sold for $350 to $775 in Canada this year.

Those early price estimates are now called “irrelevant” by Caley Denton, ticketing chief of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). The reasons for the price jump are varied, but record demand plays a role. When tickets first went on sale in October 2008, fan requests were nearly five times higher than early orders for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

On top of that comes the little-understood, harsh reality of Olympic seating: Roughly a quarter of the potential seating area of every Olympic venue is fenced off as work space for broadcast gear, officials and reporters.

What’s left for seating in each arena is not clear; VANOC refuses to say just how many tickets will be sold at any venue. But Seattle Times reporting provides some estimates: At the 19,000-seat GM Place, some 14,000 tickets will be sold. Depending on the event, 30 to 70 percent of those will go to sponsors, VIPs and Olympic officials. That leaves about 9,800 for fans, at best. At worst, for the men’s gold-medal hockey game, fans get about 4,200 seats. The same math applies to other Olympic venues.

The resulting ticket crunch in winter-sports-crazed Canada leaves organizers with the blessing of likely sellouts — as well as the burden of disgruntled fans.

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The Olympics’ long-established ticketing structure favors the well-connected and the well-to-do. First in line is “Olympic Family,” which includes International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, sponsors, broadcasters and other media and sports-federation officials. It also includes local governments, as well as dozens of national Olympic committees.

More than a year ago, before the public had its first chance, Olympic Family members were allowed to pay face-value prices for up to 480,000 tickets.

Beyond that, details of who got what are slim. VANOC, like most of the Olympic world, is a private, not-for-profit corporation, and not subject to open-records laws. Its board meetings are closed; nearly all its business is conducted in private.

When VANOC pitched the Games to the public, which would be asked to contribute hundreds of millions of tax dollars, it repeatedly pledged to conduct its business with “openness and transparency.” But it keeps secret most details of its Olympic ticket program. VANOC wouldn’t even say how many tickets went to each country. And it is especially guarded about discussing preferential treatment granted to sponsors.

The only glimpses behind the ticketing curtain come from sponsors that happen to be public agencies. The city of Vancouver bought $377,000 worth of tickets, including 100 Opening Ceremony and 100 Closing Ceremony tickets at up to $1,100 each, a Times public-records request reveals. The B.C. Lottery, B.C. Hydro and the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia together bought $1.4 million worth of Olympic and Paralympic tickets, including a luxury suite for 33 hockey games at GM Place.

Some of those tickets will go to the public. But critics say the purchases represent a government buy-in for an event that too often turns its back on average citizens.

“They bought these luxury tickets for the privileged few and not for the average Joe,” said Jenny Kwan, a Parliament member representing Vancouver’s working-class East Side. “I’m curious to see who’s on the invitation list. … I can bet it’s not going to be my constituents.”

VANOC declined to release any of its sponsor contracts. But The Times did obtain the breakdown of sponsor perks from a VANOC staff member. Top-tier sponsors — such as Coca-Cola — that have invested at least $50 million can purchase up to 250 tickets per day. Lower-tier sponsors can buy 30 to 60 tickets per day.

“Sponsors are vital,” said Andrea Shaw, VANOC’s vice president of sponsorship sales and marketing. “We need these sponsors to help us put on a great Games.” They account for more than half of the Games’ revenues.

The Games’ upper crust also gets priority buses, SUVs, designated parking and places in the Olympic torch relay — 20 spots for each top sponsor. In addition, they get a highly prized commodity: the best hotel rooms in Vancouver and Whistler. Some sponsors are entitled to up to 200 hotel rooms per day. Even better, they will pay a flat rate for their rooms, no matter what size, several Vancouver hotel managers said.

IOC President Jacques Rogge and other higher-ups staying at the upscale, waterfront Westin Bayshore, for example, will be charged only about $250 U.S. a night for suites.

Comparable rooms — if they were even available — likely would go for three or four times that to the general public, current rates suggest.

Jeffreys, a longtime Olympic fan from Seattle, can vouch for that.

“I knew I was going to be extorted because it was one ticket agency, but I didn’t expect the lack of access to hotels, and the costs,” said Jeffreys, a Franklin High School administrator who wanted to treat his wife, Suna Gurol, and their 8-year-old son, Kai, to that once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience.

All the hotels Jeffreys called refused to allow three people to stay in a room. He wondered: “Should we smuggle in our child?” Faced with booking two rooms for his family, he instead found a small Yaletown condo.

After the sponsors, next in the food chain are national Olympic committees, which get tickets for board members and executives, national sports-federation officials and athletes’ families.

Then the public finally gets a bite. The bulk of public tickets — 80 percent — are sold to Canadians. The vast majority of those tickets have been sold online, through lotteries, by a VANOC contractor, Tickets.com. The United States was left to compete for a share of about 224,000 tickets that remained.

Because fan interest, regional proximity and the size of a nation’s athletic delegation are key criteria to decide who gets what, America stood to get a sizable chunk.

It did get a chunk: 35,042 tickets — a number VANOC confirmed only after The Times learned it on its own.

The U.S. allotment was, “by a long shot,” the largest for any foreign country, VANOC’s Denton said.

The U.S. population never should have fooled itself into thinking that proximity would translate to a massive ticket allotment, insists Don Dow, a former University of Washington football player and an unofficial ticket broker who caters to Olympic travelers.

“People just don’t understand how the Olympic world works,” Dow said. “It’s only the host country that counts. We have the same priority as Bulgaria.”

Well, not quite.

The U.S. ultimately wound up with far more tickets than VANOC initially supplied. But that was made possible only by the involvement of the biggest power brokers in the Olympic travel business: Jet Set Sports and CoSport, of Far Hills, N.J.

Jet Set and CoSport are owned by Sead Dizdarevic, a legendary Olympic insider at the center of the Salt Lake bid scandal. Dizdarevic funneled $131,000 in cash to two Salt Lake bid officials who later were charged with bribery. In exchange for immunity, Dizdarevic testified against them at trial. The two officials were acquitted, but the scandal rocked the Olympic movement and forced 10 IOC members to resign.

Despite his key role, Dizdarevic today reigns as official supplier of the bulk of the global Olympic travel business. Profits for his companies have grown from $7 million at the 2002 Games to tens of millions at last year’s Beijing Games.

Dizdarevic’s companies have a dual role for the Vancouver games: Jet Set paid VANOC a reported $15 million in cash and in kind to become the official hospitality-package provider for Games sponsors and the Canadian public through 2012.

CoSport paid a reported $20 million to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to be the exclusive ticket and travel-package provider for Americans attending the Olympics through the 2012 London Games. Those deals made Dizdarevic’s companies the largest single buyer of tickets for the Vancouver Games, at around 125,000 total, said Mark Lewis, president of Jet Set/CoSport. The companies will serve up to 63,000 customers.

With early sales of spendy packages flagging during a global recession, Jet Set transferred about 55,000 tickets from its corporate-travel allotment to the U.S. individual-sales pool. The transfers brought the total U.S. individual ticket pool to around 90,000.

The country with the next-highest allotment received 10,000 tickets, said Lewis, who declined to name it.

But U.S. ticket buyers — unaware of the tiny initial ticket allotment — didn’t feel like CoSport was doing them any favors. CoSport’s ticket system drew howls of protest, particularly in Washington state, where 40 percent of early orders originated.

Like other eager fans seeking tickets in October 2008, Dooley, 67, the Sequim retiree, was required to register on the CoSport Web site, then pore over schedules and request up to 48 tickets for the entire Olympics.

Dooley wound up with only one pair of tickets to an early-round hockey game, contestants then unknown, and another pair in a later sale. He was one of the lucky ones. Many fans got no tickets at all through CoSport’s puzzling lottery system.

Subsequent ticket rounds proved equally exasperating, mostly because of CoSport computer malfunctions or lack of supply. Further, CoSport refused to answer basic questions about how many tickets would be for sale, when and for how long, Dooley said. And it imposed what fans called an outrageous $35 shipping charge.

Also, those who slogged through the lengthy initial ticket requests were incensed when CoSport later offered more tickets, first-come, first-served, on its Web site, where a few less-desirable tickets are still available.

Those early requesters might not have bothered if they’d known how few tickets were up for grabs.

The company had 4,200 initial requests for men’s short-track speedskating on Feb. 20, when Seattle’s Apolo Ohno is expected to compete for a medal. It had only 154 tickets to sell. U.S. fans competed for just 76 tickets to the women’s figure-skating final and 430 seats to the Opening Ceremony.

CoSport never explained why early fans weren’t told how few tickets they were fighting over. The $35 shipping fee, Lewis said, is CoSport’s actual cost.

Lewis was less forthcoming about a steep ticket markup that also miffed U.S. customers. CoSport is allowed a 20 percent markup over Canadian face value, VANOC’s Denton said, as payment for managing the ticket sales.

But VANOC would not explain U.S. ticket markups as high as 35 percent documented by The Times. Asked how much control they have over prices, USOC officials gave conflicting answers.

Lewis blamed the markups on exchange rates, bank fees and currency conversion charges. He also said his company is entitled to compensation for the risk of spending millions for tickets two years in advance.

“The customer decides if that’s what they want to pay — or not,” he said.

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