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Hidden Costs

Joe Opio/The New Vision/Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

Fan Parks aren’t as free as FIFA promise.

When FIFA resolved to erect a couple of free official fan parks around Johannesburg, the decision came as a relief to ticket-less fans who had been priced out of the World Cup action. However, after just one visit to the official FIFA FanFests at InnisFree Park and Soweto, most of these same fans cannot even afford the entry to the fan parks.

InnisFree Park is located in the exclusive Sandton area, described as the richest square mile in Africa. On the opening day of the World Cup, it was standing room only at InnisFree as thousands of fans turned up to catch the match between hosts South Africa and Mexico.

This park, with its rolling grass and water features, seemed destined to become a popular football-watching venue of choice for many a ticket-less fan. For starters, it sits just 15km from the Ellis Park stadium and can accommodate over 20,000 fans. With the Sandton skyline providing the ultimate backdrop, InnisFree offers a picturesque setting for World Cup games. Large beer tents litter the park, with an official store and various food and beverage options for the revellers who enjoy their games on high quality giant screens and via state-of-the-art sound/light systems. Prior to and after matches, the stage/screen at InnisFree is instantly turned into an entertainment area where fans are serenaded by the very best musical talents South Africa has to offer.

Yet, since that opening game, InnisFree has struggled to raise similar numbers. Revellers who turned up for South Africa’s opener have been driven away from InnisFree by the prohibitive cost of enjoying the World Cup from there.

As a FIFA-endorsed fan park, InnisFree keeps its gates locked to all but the authorized food and beverages providers. Fans are strip-searched on entry to ensure no food is smuggled in and, as a result of this monopoly, profit-chasing providers at InnisFree have proved only too happy to squeeze every dividend from this advantage by charging high prices for their products and services.

Inside InnisFree, the traditional South African version of a hotdog, the Boerewors Roll, sets one back a massive R20. Compare and contrast that with the fact that elsewhere, one could get a Boerewors Roll for a mere R8. Similarly, a can of coke which would normally cost R6 goes for R15 rand inside the park; a bar of chocolate costs R20, a muffin R10 and biltong, South Africa’s favourite snack, is priced at R30.

“The prices are outrageous and exploitative,” laments Brendan Silongo, a South African fan at the fan park with a friend from neighbouring Bryanston. “It’s like most of the food providers here just doubled or tripled the ordinary prices. And since we have no choice, lest we go hungry the whole day, I was forced to buy two Boerewors Rolls and a coke earlier.”

Silongo isn’t the only complainant.

According to Ezlyn Barendz, the organisers’ publicist, the prices being charged for basic snacks at the FanFests are fair given the context in which the fans enjoy the games at the fan parks. “Entrance here is free,” Barendz, a PR and Media officer with KM Consortium asserts. “These prices were discussed at length and set down by FIFA. And given the fact that these fan parks give the ticket-less fan an opportunity to enjoy the match in a stadium-like atmosphere, I don’t think the prices charged are so unfair.”

Barendz puts the reduced number of fans turning up at InnisFree to the vagaries of weather which have seen a deathly chill descend on Johannesburg. These weather conditions, Barendz contends, have made watching football outdoors a less tempting venture to the fans.

“Apart from one, the daily matches fall in the evening when it’s a bit cold here in Johannesburg,” Barendz says. “The weather certainly hasn’t done us any favours. People aren’t as predisposed to come out and watch the game from fan parks when the weather is that cold, especially on week days. I’m sure the numbers will pick up again at the weekend.”

Barendz’s weather argument might carry some merit, but fans like Silongo insist that since fan parks were tailor-made for fans who couldn’t afford match tickets, making basic refreshments so expensive is simply counter productive. “If I couldn’t afford to buy a ticket priced at R300, what makes FIFA and the organizers think that I can actually come here and spend over R200 on simple food and drinks?” Silongo asks. “FIFA says this park is free to all fans around Sandton to come and enjoy the World Cup. And yes the entrance is free, but if you look at the expense of watching the matches from here, you realize this fan park isn’t as free as it seems.”

Mark Delani, another fan, reveals that much as he loves watching football on the giant screens at InnisFree, he can’t see himself watching all 64 games from the park. “It’s more pocket-friendly to watch at home,” Delani states. “Of course, you can’t enjoy the same atmosphere, but at least the drinks won’t be as expensive. If I could pack my food and step out occasionally to eat and then return, I could. But the free public parking for InnisFree fans is over 1km away. I can’t see myself walking a kilometre each time I want to eat moderately priced food.”

He continues: “So, the option is either I stay at home and sacrifice the atmosphere and all other advantages of InnisFree, or I come to InnisFree and spend ridiculous amounts of money on food. I think I’ll only afford to come here for Bafana Bafana games or once every week on the weekend.”

Alternatively, Delani and other disgruntled fans like him could of course forsake InnisFree for other fan parks that aren’t FIFA-endorsed. Joubert Park in downtown Johannesburg is one such option. Unlike InnisFree Park, Joubert Park is a public viewing and township site and not FIFA-endorsed. It also sits only 4,000 fans, with no parking provided.

FIFA’s strict commercial regulations still ensure that no licensed food providers can operate within Joubert Park, but as a partnership between City of Johannesburg and cell phone network giant MTN, Joubert Park comes with one critical community-driven advantage absent at InnisFree. It’s within spitting distance of the cheapest food and drink stalls that litter downtown Johannesburg. As a result, and to the relief of the ordinary fan, food and soft drinks can be accessed at prices that are not half as prohibitive as those at InnisFree Park.

Alfred Nkosi, a middle-aged fan at Joubert Park, discloses that the proximity of the park to his downtown Johannesburg trading centres and food stalls makes it easier for him to dash out for food during recesses or between games. “I walked here to watch Bafana Bafana play Mexico and my home isn’t very far away. After the Bafana game, I went and had a meal a few metres outside, and I have now returned to watch the next match.”

Joubert Park might not match the official FIFA Fan Park at InnisFree for glitz and glamour, but for Nkosi and other ticket-less fans it provides a convenient and cost-effective alternative to the financial excesses at the official FanFests.

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