By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Germany's Schalke 04 became the latest top European soccer club to go into partnership with online ticket vendor Viagogo on Wednesday, embracing a business that other sports argue is pricing fans out of stadiums.
Once the preserve of shady figures in sidestreets, the sale of spare tickets for big sports matches has moved on to the internet with the development of sites like Viagogo and rival StubHub, which is owned by eBay Inc.
While a growing number of soccer clubs are happy to work with the websites and tap an additional source of revenue, the rulers of English rugby and cricket argue that online sales inflate the price of tickets beyond the reach of many core fans.
"There has always been a resale market for tickets. Everyone knows that," Ed Parkinson, head of marketing at Viagogo, told Reuters.
"We're removing all of that murkiness and insecurity. The deal with Schalke for example is club endorsed, people know the ticket will be genuine and it's simple to use," he added.
Viagogo, founded in 2006, now has agreements with 10 soccer clubs in Germany's Bundesliga, 10 in the English Premier League including champions Manchester City and Chelsea, and a further 10 across Europe.
StubHub, which is a partner of Major League Baseball in the United States, moved into the British market this season. It has deals with Premier League soccer clubs Sunderland and Everton, while an agreement with Tottenham Hotspur starts next season.
StubHub functions purely as a service to allow season ticket holders to sell unwanted seats. As well as offering a platform for ticket resales, some clubs also give Viagogo a separate allocation of seats to sell for matches.
The sale of these tickets online at above face value has angered some fans and that backlash was a factor in the abrupt termination this month of Viagogo's partnership with Bundesliga club Hamburg SV.
The tensions are most apparent in sports like cricket and rugby where demand for international matches is high.
English rugby and cricket authorities argue the resale of tickets online nullifies their attempts to control prices and ensure supporters of grassroots games get access to major matches.
"The message we want to get across to fans is that they must not sell tickets at inflated prices," said Andy Walpole, a spokesman with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
"We feel it goes against the grain of what we are trying to do as a sport. We want to make the sport as accessible as we can for as many people as possible," he added.
However, tickets for the sold-out first day of the first Ashes test between England and Australia next July are already on offer on Viagogo's website at a price of almost 200 pounds ($320) - well above face value.
The ECB warns it will cancel tickets if it finds they have been sold on, but its legal options are limited as the law banning resale of tickets applies only to soccer matches.
The English Rugby Football Union (RFU) won a legal victory last month forcing Viagogo to identify people who resold tickets for matches at Twickenham in 2010-11.
That would allow it to "name and shame" offenders, cut allocations to member clubs selling on tickets or ultimately try to recover profits through court action.
Viagogo said it will comply with the ruling, but added that its rugby business is busier than ever.
StubHub is also selling tickets for rugby's Six Nations matches online but believes that ultimately cooperation is the key.
"If there are ways we can work with rights holders like the RFU, we would like to discuss it with them," said Nick Harford, director of partnerships, at StubHub.
"We have ambitions to work with as many leading rights holders as we can," he added.
($1 = 0.6173 British pounds)
(Reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Mark Potter)
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