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"Expensive" tournament slides into final weekend

Summer made an early appearance in the Swiss capital on Thursday, an unwelcome development for the man touting tickets at the tram stop outside Bern's PostFinance Arena.

This content was published on May 8, 2009 - 12:30

"I'm selling them for half price, if that," he says, glancing down at the four salmon coloured ice hockey passes he's holding. Four hours later, he is still there, and many others are too.

Team Switzerland and ticket hawkers may have been disappointed with the 2009 Ice Hockey World Championship, but others walked away much happier.

They include the French team, who advanced to the qualifying round and posted a best-ever finish, and Hungary, who played in their first top-tier tournament in more than 70 years. Latvia, who upset Switzerland, played to a respectable 4-2 loss against Canada.

The results have been mixed for organisers. By Thursday, they had sold slightly more than 300,000 tickets for 56 games. That's an average of 5,300 a game.

They had counted on selling an additional 3,000 tickets to break even, according to Heinz Mazenaur, a spokesman for the tournament's organising committee. Mazenaur admitted that sales would have been stronger had Switzerland qualified for the quarterfinal.

The tournament ends on Sunday.

High prices

Officials from both the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the sport's governing body, and the organising committee admit that Switzerland's high prices make hockey an expensive proposition. Latvian fans came to the same conclusion.

"The dealers are asking up to SFr100 ($89) for a place in the standing room," Janis Barkan, the head of the Latvian fan club, told swissinfo.ch. "It's much too expensive. Some of my fellow citizens simply cannot afford it."

Games cost SFr49 ($43) for a spot in the standing-room-only grandstands to SFr149 for a proper seat. Latvians earn the equivalent of SFr800 per month and those who had travelled to what marketers had dubbed "ice hockey country" were minding their purse strings.

Scores of enthusiasts watched games on large screens in public areas. Inside the gates of the PostFinance Arena, dozens of seats assigned to representatives of hockey associations around the world sat empty.

"We came together in a car and we lodged at a camp in Interlaken," said Elsa, a 15-year-old fan among around a dozen other supporters from the Baltic republic. She and others had compromised on the non-essentials: namely transport, shelter and food.

A source of revenue

The tournament is a major source of revenue for the IIHF, and the money is needed to run a programme that runs deeper than one annual event, says spokesman Szymon Szemberg.

"The specific mandate that was given to the IIHF when it was founded in 1908 was to develop and encourage international competition, and this is what we are doing on many different levels," he said. "And many different championships, which we are organising, which are very costly, don't even have their results shown in the papers."

Szemberg cites the Division 3 championship in New Zealand, which includes teams from Ireland, Mongolia and Armenia. "Who cares? Very few people. But by organising this tournament, we are fulfilling our mandate, and this big picture is very important."

The IIHF does not deny that its main annual event faces competition. On the other side of the Atlantic, North American fans are glued to the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Playoffs and the world tournament is the perennial also-ran.

"It doesn't have a lot of traction really. I don't think a lot of people know how it works," says Chris Johnston, a sports journalist with the Canadian Press, a wire service.

"It doesn't register – because it's played against the playoffs, number one, because it's not all the best players. That's part of the problem. Even when it was played last year in Canada, I was a little surprised."

Where's the talent?

Russia have again submitted a strong squad for the world championship and the Canadian team includes top-tier players. But the most compelling match-ups, at least by the standards of what's covered in North American sports pages, remain in the NHL.

"That's one thing that Canadian players – they don't say it explicitly but you can tell – aren't that into. They have to play Hungary and then Norway and Denmark," says Johnston.

"Those aren't interesting games frankly, they're not as challenging and they seem sort of superfluous to a Canadian audience."

"The final that we had last year between Russia and Canada, at that time those two teams were definitely the two best teams in the world," said Szemberg. "And although the Stanley Cup playoffs were going on parallel, I think every hockey observer would agree that the two best teams playing still in May were the Russian and Canadian teams."

He adds that the IIHF is working to make inroads in the North American market but that it will not – nor will it attempt to – steal the spotlight from the NHL.

The event is part of a package – one which includes a "bigger than life" Olympic tournament, Szermberg notes.

"The upcoming Olympics in Vancouver will probably be the biggest hockey tournament in the history of the game."

Justin Häne, swissinfo.ch (With input from Samuel Jaberg)

Visitors

The Ice Hockey World Championship is the biggest tourism event of the year for Zurich, according to Frank Bumann of the city's tourism.

It will not match the European football championship, held in Switzerland and Austria last summer though.

"There is definitely a smaller amount of ice hockey fans coming in if you compare it with the Euro."

"We don't have any studies as we did have for Euro2008," Bumann told swissinfo.ch. "The organising committee was talking about 100,000 overnights for Bern and Zurich."

One difference will be that there were more hockey games played than football games.

"It's not only one day but throughout two weeks. Therefore, it's quite important but nonetheless, ice hockey is not the same as the Euro2008."

Bern tourism doesn't have any figures on the economic impact of the event, but was happy for the extra guests.

"I think it's an excellent event and we are very happy to have it here in Zurich-Kloten," Bumann said. "It's an event which is great. It's a bit of a pity that not all the matches are sold out.:

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