Nancy Gillen

Last weekend, the Hungarian capital of Budapest hosted the inaugural World Urban Games, an event put together rather speedily and with little fanfare.

Despite this, it seemed that attendance at the Games was high, with crowds jostling to get a glimpse of sports such as parkour, break-dancing and skateboarding.

Organisers will be pleased with the turnout, but would have hoped for such an outcome, having made tickets for the Games free.

Such a ploy is an excellent way of getting people to come to a new event. No one had any idea of what the World Urban Games would be like, with no past editions to compare it to. Would people have parted with their hard-earned cash for something that could have potentially been disorganised, boring or just a bit rubbish?

With free tickets, spectators had nothing to lose by turning up to this new sporting competition, even if it ended up being a disappointment.

The Games were a success, however, in part because of the festival atmosphere facilitated by letting people in for free.

Those who attended will now be on board with the concept. They probably posted about their day on social media and relayed their experience to friends and family. They may even go to future editions. Subsequently, free ticketing has allowed the World Urban Games brand to grow.  

Crowds flocked to the inaugural World Urban Games in Budapest ©World Urban Games
Crowds flocked to the inaugural World Urban Games in Budapest ©World Urban Games

Free ticketing was also a success for the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires last year, another relatively new venture. 

Wristbands were given to spectators to allow free access to the venues in the Argentinian capital, with organisers distributing all 600,000. The popularity of the event was shown by the snaking queues outside the Youth Olympic Park.

It has since been confirmed that tickets to the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne next year will also have no charge.

These have been instances where free ticketing has worked.

It is a precarious tactic, however, with no guarantee that people will actually turn up. The idea that people have nothing to lose with a free ticket can backfire, as it means the event is of no value to them and they could easily decide to not attend.

The weather in Budapest last weekend was reportedly sunny and warm, which of course encouraged the crowds. What would have happened if it was raining or cold?

A spectator with a free ticket may have looked out of the window in the morning and decided not to go. At least a paying customer would have had more of a decision to make and would probably end up grinning and bearing it in order to not waste money.

The FA Women's Super League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, which offered free tickets, was supposedly sold out ©Getty Images
The FA Women's Super League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, which offered free tickets, was supposedly sold out ©Getty Images

This problem with free ticketing was made clear at the start of this month, when the 2018-2019 FA Women's Super League season got underway across England.

Following a Europe-wide trend of holding women's football matches in high-capacity stadiums, Chelsea were taking on Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge, while, 200 miles north, Manchester City lined up against Manchester United at the Etihad.

Tickets for the former fixture were free, but fans were charged for the latter. It was the match at the Etihad, however, that boasted the higher attendance.

Up in Manchester, 31,213 poured into the Etihad, while 24,564 were present at Stamford Bridge in London.

Tickets for the Chelsea match actually sold out in minutes. This was celebrated in the media as if the two teams would be playing in front of a full stadium, but 15,000 ticket holders failed to turn up.

It is possible that a lot of these people ordered tickets on a whim, with no firm commitment to go. Or maybe they just did not feel like it on the day. That is the risk organisers take.

In Manchester, less people had bought tickets overall, but more turned up. Almost paradoxically, it seems like charging for a sporting event can guarantee a higher attendance than free entry.

On the day, however, around 15,000 spectators did not attend ©Getty Images
On the day, however, around 15,000 spectators did not attend ©Getty Images

There is also the question of where free ticketing devalues the sport on offer.

Women's football, for example, is trying to gain credibility and a certain level of professionalism. Free entry to matches can undermine this, with it almost giving the impression that women's football is not worth forking out for.

It is more understandable why the World Urban Games was free to watch, with organisers looking to essentially sell the event itself as a concept before selling tickets. At some point, however, in order to both become serious events and ensure profit, spectators will soon have to be charged.

Indeed, if it is a question of getting people on board with a brand, would it not be better instead to invest in an effective promotional campaign? This seems to be a better strategy than offering free tickets and risk not having spectators turn up, or devalue the event on offer.

If World Urban Games organisers had the time, perhaps that is what they would have done.

It seems to have been the case with the FA WSL opening weekend, anyway. Organisers of the match at the Etihad played on the existing rivalry between the two Manchester teams, encouraging fans in the football-mad city to come along. This proved to be a more effective strategy than free tickets, as at Stamford Bridge.

As has transpired, there are obvious pros and cons to free ticketing at sporting events. However, it seems to be that there is more value in a strong marketing campaign.