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World Cup plays to empty seats

By Irving Rein and Adam Grossman


Stunning upsets. Dramatic finishes. Individual brilliance. Goals galore. The 2014 World Cup has started off with a bang. Yet, not as many people as expected are on hand to hear and see the excitement in venues throughout Brazil. Outside of the home country’s matches, there have been thousands of empty seats in stadiums throughout the tournament. Even marquee matchups, such as the Netherlands-Spain game, have failed to fill their venues. The Italian and English football associations each had 2,500 tickets allocated for their recent game. While England sold their entire allotment, Italy was reported to have returned hundreds of tickets back to FIFA.

So why is the world’s most popular sporting event playing to empty seats? Hosting the event in Brazil does create unique structural challenges that likely have and will prevent more sellouts. Because of the billions of dollars of public funds spent on the World Cup by Brazil, FIFA allocated a large number of tickets for exclusive purchase by fans from the host nation that are paying the bill. In a country where a 10-cent price increase in bus fare caused a nation-wide protest last year, paying $135-$188 dollars per match is likely too expensive for many Brazilian soccer fans.

However, the World Cup is not alone in having difficulty filling empty seats for major sporting events. For example, the National Football League (NFL) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are two of the most popular sports leagues in the United States. Yet, both organizations have seen declines in attendance over the past years and are spending significant resources in addressing this venue challenge. With ticket prices continually increasing and technology making it easing than ever to watch games on your television, laptop, or phone, how do sports organizations get people to come to venues?

Arena da Amazônia - Amazon Arena (Quando ainda em construçao - When still under construction.) Photo by Gabriel Smith. CC BY 2.0 via gabriel_srsmith Flickr.
Arena da Amazônia – Amazon Arena (Quando ainda em construçao – When still under construction.) Photo by Gabriel Smith. CC BY 2.0 via gabriel_srsmith Flickr.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil demonstrates many of these issues. One of the biggest place marketing challenges is the location of the stadiums. Both FIFA and Brazil essentially used the Field of Dreams “if you build it they will come” strategy. Brazil decided to build or renovate 12 stadiums in many different parts of the country, including venues in remote locations throughout the country. For example, the United States’ second game will be held in Manaus in the Amazonian jungle. The city can only be reached by boat or plane as no highways connect the city to the rest of Brazil.

Brazil could have focused on eight venues — the minimum required by FIFA to host a World Cup — in locations closer to metropolitan areas. We have found that many of the most successful venues already take advantage of existing infrastructure rather than depending on new development. It is likely that more people would attend World Cup matches if they did not have to rely on new roads, bridges, and rail lines to get there.

Brazil and FIFA have also suffered from the lack of an integrated place marketing strategy. The most forward thinking sports organizations have extended their footprints beyond their venues. FIFA deserves significant credit for extending the World Cup’s footprint beyond the stadiums. For example, FIFA Fan Fests in Brazil are often held on gorgeous beaches in cities where games take place. They are filled with music, television, food, and drink to celebrate the 32 days of the World Cup. This encourages fans from both inside and outside of Brazil to have a World Cup experience without having to attend the games. Millions of people are expected to attend these Fan Fests as they have done in every World Cup since 2002.

However, these place extensions work best when they also encourage people to actually attend the games. In Brazil, the Fan Fests can provide a better overall experience than going to the stadiums. Because many of the stadiums were completed only days before the World Cup started, they lack many of the amenities that are found at the Fan Fest. For example, Arena Amazonia in Manuas will only feature “restaurants and underground parking.” That hardly compares to the festive experience at a Fan Fest. Attending a Fan Fest also does not require buying a ticket or dealing with the traffic problems that occur when traveling to stadiums, and people can still see the game on large television monitors with thousands of other fans. Why attend a game when you can have a better and cheaper experience at a Fan Fest?

The World Cup in Brazil shows that thrilling competitions alone do not fill empty seats. Creating an integrated strategy requires a complete analysis of all factors that would prevent a fan from coming to a venue. This includes examining transportation, accessibility, and technology issues – and making certain that game attendance is not negatively impacted by efforts to engage fans through place extensions.

Adam Grossman is the Founder and President of Block Six Analytics (B6A). He has worked with a number of sports organizations, including the Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Capitals, and SMG @ Solider Field, to enhance their corporate sponsorship and enterprise marketing capabilities. Irving Rein is Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of many books, including The Elusive Fan, High Visibility, and Marketing Places. He has consulted for Major League Baseball, the United States Olympic Committee, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and numerous corporations. They are the co-authors of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry with Ben Shields. Read previous blog posts on the sports business.

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