In Defence of the Olympic Tickets System

Olympic Tickets email confirmation

One of the tasks which the organisers of the 2012 Olympics will have looked forward to the least will have been the ticket distribution. With demand inevitably set to outstrip supply, and in an age where everybody believes they have a “right” to whatever they want, the process was always going to generate world-class quantities of bad feeling. However, the whinging which has occupied so many acres of newsprint has been anything but Olympic standard, culminating in this pathetic piece by Allison Pearson in the Telegraph this week. The gist of that article was: “I applied for tickets to some low-profile sports and got them! What an awful job the organisers have done! I hate them, I hate them!”

This completely unhinged rant, widely derided in social media, actually asks the question: “How can three million first-round tickets have gone to just 700,000 people?” And the answer is, Allison, to do the maths. People bought tickets in fours. Can you imagine what the Polly Fillers of this world would have had to say if tickets had been sold singly? Some people did get more than one lot (including Allison Pearson), but that was probably because at least one of their successful applications was for a sport which didn’t sell out.

Yes, I was lucky enough to get something. Not the men’s 100m final or anything like that, but at least it’s something. I put it down to doing a bit of homework beforehand, and playing the game. Here’s how.

The most common complaint I hear (from people I respect) is that the system favoured people who could put many thousands of pounds in their bank account. I don’t believe that’s true. What many people aren’t admitting is that they wish they’d applied for a lot more tickets, because they now (and only now) realise they didn’t have much to lose.

Imagine that a ticket to an event cost £100, and four times the number of people applied as there were tickets available. So if you just put in for one event, you’d have a one-in-four chance of getting one. If you put in for two events, you’d have a 44% chance of getting one, and a 6% chance of getting two. If you put in for three events, you’d have a 58% chance of getting one, etc.

Now, the problem was that the organisers said you had to have the money in your bank account to cover the tickets you’d been allocated. And people said: “I can’t apply for more than X, because that’s the most money I can have in my bank account when they come to take it”. But they weren’t playing the odds. In the example above, supposing your limit was £200. If you took the attitude that you couldn’t put in for three tickets, because you couldn’t have £300 in your bank account, you were assuming that there was a chance of you being successful with all three allocations, and ending up with nothing because you couldn’t fund it. In reality, that was never going to happen. The chances of you being successful with three applications out of three, in the above example, are 1.5%. Yes, it would be infuriating if it happened, and you hit the jackpot with a massive success rate. Imagine then ending up with nothing! But that was never going to happen.

That’s why I put in for 15 events, at a cost of something like £8,000. Whether I could afford to pay for them or not is irrelevant, because there wasn’t enough money in my bank account to cover more than about 8, even if I’d been lucky enough to have got that many. But I worked out that the chances of getting more than 8 out of 15 were so tiny that it wasn’t a situation worth worrying about. Trust me, if I’d got the lot I’d have gone to my grave regretting that I didn’t raise the cash to have covered the allocation. It’s not as if it would have been hard to shift them on to friends and family. However, by putting in for 15 events, my chances of getting at least a couple were very strong. And so it proved. I could quite comfortably cover the cost of the tickets I ended up getting.

The other widely heard complaint is that the system seemed to have been set up to encourage people to apply for more tickets than they might have done otherwise. You don’t say. Guess what? Olympic Games don’t traditionally sell out, not even in the most sports-mad countries. One of the organisers’ highest priorities from the outset will have been to fill every grandstand, even at the lowest profile sports. Not because empty seats would look embarrassing, but because of the ammunition it would (rightly) give the people who don’t think that this country should be hosting the event anyway (and that’s another argument for which I might even have some sympathy). I have genuine respect for sales techniques which extract the maximum results by sheer ingenuity, where the 3G mobile spectrum auction remains the high water mark.

I dread to think what things would have been like if the Olympic tickets had been sold on some sort of “first-come first-served” basis. Apart from handing an unfair advantage to the quick-witted and computer-literate, the chance of the IT infrastructure being able to cope would have been about the same as my chance of getting tickets for the men’s 100m final. Which I’ll be watching, quite contentedly, on TV.