The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament kicks off Friday for the first time since Covid-19 hit.
While the city’s pandemic regulations remain strict, Chris Brooke, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, claimed demand to attend the event remains high.
“I think people are looking forward to a fun weekend. Those restrictions are there but I don’t think it takes away from the key ingredients of the Sevens — which is great rugby, entertainment and a fun weekend,” Brooke said.
The tournament will be held at the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium, but the government has capped seats at 85% capacity, allowing only up to 34,000 spectators each day. Brooke said about 26,500 tickets have been sold and a majority of attendees are likely to be Hong Kong residents.
Before the pandemic, the three day sporting event could easily draw a total of 120,000 spectators. In 2019, overseas visitors accounted for half of attendees and the tournament contributed approximately 400 million Hong Kong dollars ($50 million) to the city’s economy, according to Reuters.
Instead of the usual 24 teams, only 16 teams will be competing at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens this year. There will also be no women’s tournament this time around.
The Fiji team has won the tournament five times in a row and will play their first match against Japan on Friday.
Despite regional neighbors abandoning most of their Covid-19 measures, many of Hong Kong’s pandemic rules remain in place.
At the tournament, spectators will be seated in groups of 12 and will have to keep their face masks on at all times when they are not consuming food or drinks, according to the Hong Kong Sevens website.
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In accordance with government’s rules, attendees are required to present their Leave Home Safe Vaccine Pass and a photo of a rapid antigen test with their name and date, the site said.
Players are also subject to Covid regulations and must stay within a quarantine bubble, similar to how athletes were kept safe during the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year.
“They’re very positive about being here … They’re very happy to go through that process to make sure they can get on the pitch,” said Brooke.
Navigating the rules has been difficult for the Hong Kong Rugby Union, which relies on the Rugby Sevens for most of its revenue.
Brooke said the organization had to significantly cut spending over the last two years and slashed headcount by 50%.
“We’ve always been aware of the reliance on the Sevens and we’ve always been trying to reduce that pre-Covid as well … We recognize that we need to look at alternative revenue streams,” Brooke said.
“It is quite challenging, but I think the focus going forward will be to ensure that we’ve got a good balance between the Sevens income and other revenue sources,” he added.
Still, Brooke is optimistic that the rugby union is moving in the right direction and is hoping for a good mix of local and international spectators in 2023.
“It’d be great if we can get these major events going over the next three to four months because I think it really helps the local community and obviously helps [Hong Kong’s] status as an international hub.”