Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The toughest ticket in town

There are a lot of things about ticket-purchasing that are internecine and complicated. When to buy, where to buy, how much is reasonable, what secondary vendors are most likely to provide the best deal, where to buy from if you want actual hard tickets, etc. It's a complicated dance, but at least when it comes to buying said tickets in the United States, I think I've got it more or less down.

England, on the other hand, is a whole new ball game literally and figuratively.

As you might have noticed from that handy sidebar I've got of future planned trips, I will be in the UK to visit friends and family in early February. As this will be my first time in jolly old England since I was 13 (and I practically remember nothing about the place), I'm extremely excited for a variety of reasons, but paramount among them will be my first-ever Premier League matches. My visit spans Feb. 5-14, a stretch in which my Southampton FC is both visiting Queens Park Rangers in London and hosting West Ham United at St. Mary's. This, obviously, was not an accident.

I've been following Southampton for some 13 years now through both thick and thin, and right now times are thicker than Louie Gohmert's head (Topical State of the Union joke!). Just four seasons ago, Southampton was toiling in the third division of English Football with the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge and Oldham Athletic. This season, following consecutive promotions and a potentially devastating sell-off last summer the Saints are in the midst of their most remarkable season in decades. Southampton is currently third in the Barclays Premier League after a huge wins away at Manchester United and Newcastle United and is one win away from the fifth round of the FA Cup.

That is an astonishing rise for a club that was bankrupt, in the third division and has the popularity, budget and brand efficacy in England the Sacramento Kings have here. It may also not last if rumors of major sell-offs coming this summer are to be believed, so, damnit, I'm going to see the magic while I can.

I can. Not. Wait.

That said, buying tickets is very different in the UK as opposed to here. While having a friend in Southampton set me up for tickets to St. Mary's was easy enough, getting tickets to the away match at QPR was as complicated as getting tickets to that other big sporting event that's happening soon. (Side note: Thank goodness we can finally have one of those without controversy, right?) Much of the rub comes from the fact that British soccer fans aren't terribly understanding people, and a long-standing system of club membership and priority is entrenched. Throw into the mix that tickets typically don't go on sale more than four weeks prior to a match instead of all tickets going on sale at the same time months in advance. This seems foolish to me because a) It's just a game at the end of the day, people, b) You're minimizing the window in which people can give you money for an expiring service and c) How can you create new fans if old ones are the only ones with access to tickets?

But far be it from me to judge another country's sporting culture, so I was ready to play the game. Because competing soccer fans don't particularly like each other most English football matches have designated sections for away fans (complete with signage), tickets to which are sold exclusively through the visiting club. If you like the visiting club and you're not sitting with those fans, rumor has it your personal safety demands that you leave your jersey at home.

That notion alone is kind of crazy to me because it's extremely unusual (though not unheard of unfortunately) to be threatened with violence because you root for a different team in the U.S., despite what the news stories tell you, so long as you're not in Philadelphia. Being explicitly warned that wearing an opposing jersey could be a death sentence is nuts to me, but tempting fate might be nuttier. Obviously, I tried to get tickets in the away section, but given that Loftus Road holds just a tick over 18,000 fans, the Southampton away stands only held roughly 1,800 tickets.

You can imagine how that impacted things. Southampton restricted ticket sales to season ticket holders whom had already attended five away matches this season, which seems to me to be a crap sandwich for any Saints supporters in London, of whom I assume there are plenty. Naturally those sold out before I could get close to them, so my last option was sitting in the general stands at Loftus Road, which meant not wearing anything team-centric unless it happened to be blue hoops (which I suppose I could manage), but that might give off the wrong impression.

Of course, getting tickets to the general stands wasn't easy either because why would they be? When tickets initially went on sale through QPR they were only available to people who were formal QPR club members, which I wouldn't mind lying about if it didn't cost £40 before you got your hands on tickets. England also provides little in the way of Stubhub, and official club partner Viagogo reserves the rights to cancel your secondary-market ticket order if you are "suspected to be fans of the opposition."

That all seems a bit cockamammie, but unfortunately, I don't make the rules.

Luckily, if members don't scoop up all the seats, tickets do eventually go on general sale two and a half weeks before the game is played, and that means at 4:55 a.m. this morning, I woke with bloodshot eyes and settled down in front of the computer waiting for the clock to tick toward 10 a.m. GMT, a delightful 5 a.m. here in New York. Luckily from this point on it was relatively straightforward except for one or two minor hiccups. For one, VISA initially blocked the ticket purchase because apparently spending $280 on English soccer tickets at 5 in the morning is unusual if you live in the United States. Once I jumped that hurdle, I found each QPR account (I had set one up a few days earlier in anticipation of my purchase) is only allowed a maximum of four tickets. I must know too many people in London, because I needed six. This meant hastily making a second account with my junk e-mail account and hoping the ticket office didn't notice two orders with the same credit card. I did briefly consider asking a friend in the UK or Australia to buy the last two as they were the only ones awake, but eventually I opted to go it alone.

If you didn't follow all of that don't sweat it, because I just got a headache writing it. After all the hectic confusion, the bottom line is this: I have six tickets for the first row of section Z1 near the Loftus Road away stands for Feb. 7 to see Southampton face QPR. This assumes the orders don't get canceled by QPR and according to my credit card the charges are still pending, but for now I'm going to assume I'm in the clear.

I feel pretty groggy. I probably will for the rest of the day. In the end, though, it's probably worth it. I am about as jazzed as one can be for a sporting event when they're running on fumes and the event isn't for 17 days, but that's fine. Ideally, this won't be the last time I see Southampton play in person. I hope to see them at Old Trafford or Emirates or Stamford Bridge one of these days as well, and of course, I plan on making several more visits to St. Mary's before I kick the bucket. I just hope there aren't as many hoops (pun!) to jump through next time.

Wait, what's that you say? If Southampton beats Crystal Palace this weekend its fifth-round FA Cup tie will be on Feb. 14 when I'll still be in the country until night time?

So, uh, how does one get tickets to that, exactly?

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