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At Large: do the Asian Cup and Super Bowl show sport is done selling out?

With half-empty venues blighting the Asian Cup and even a few luxury packages going unsold at the NFL's showpiece, SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly looks at what might be putting full houses under threat.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: do the Asian Cup and Super Bowl show sport is done selling out?

So the Super Bowl happened.

You may have watched it. If you were in the US, and specifically not in New Orleans, there’s a fair chance you did. If you were further east, your eyelids may have drooped midway through a pointless first quarter.

The annual Super Bowl story, as much as it’s about crowning the winners of sport’s richest league, is also about the scale of the audience. For the most part, that means whatever sizeable chunk of the US population is watching on television. Typically, though, it also means what smaller collection of lucky folk are in the arena itself, joining the great, the good and, in Atlanta, Maroon 5.

On Sunday, however, the Mercedes-Benz Arena was not quite full for Super Bowl LIII. It was a close-run thing, but CNBC reporter Jess Golden picked up on news that around 80 top-end tickets were still unsold by the time the LA Rams and the New England Patriots kicked off. That may barely be a pixel on an LED flatscreen but it left around US$400,000 on the table.

More visible, for sure, were the swathes of open spaces visible at the recent AFC Asian Cup soccer tournament in the UAE. Attendances were uninspiring more or less throughout the competition, with average crowds of 13,766 ahead of last Friday’s final, even after the Abu Dhabi Sports Council had reportedly given away 18,000 tickets to see the hosts lose 4-0 to eventual champions Qatar in the semi-final. Workday scheduling and a lack of media cut-through were among the factors blamed.

The participation of the Qataris – whose first-round encounter with North Korea apparently drew just 452 spectators – was complicated throughout by a diplomatic blockade imposed on them by their neighbours, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. For one thing, openly supporting them at matches was not permitted – as one British fan found to his cost when he was detained after wearing a Qatar shirt to a venue.

Nevertheless, either the 2022 Fifa World Cup hosts do a better job of navigating regional preferences and encouraging international visitors, or we have to get used to the idea of the biggest sporting event on the planet playing out in front of vacant stands.  

There are some who will tell you that this is all part of a deepening trend. A few weeks ago Jesse Lawrence, founder of New York-based reseller TicketIQ, wrote a piece for TechCrunch declaring an end to the age of the sell-out. Lawrence cited a succession of events that began with empty seats in 2018, from the first game of the NBA Finals at the Golden State Warriors’ Oracle Arena, to Taylor Swift’s still record-breaking Reputation tour.

That slight decline in tickets sold, Lawrence argued, was not the result of a dip in interest – not with millennials spending 60 per cent more on live experiences than those in Generation X, according to a 2017 report by McKinsey.

Instead, the answer lies in a shift in sales strategies and the changing dynamics of an ‘always-on’ marketplace in an era of increasing competition for attention. Their heads turned by the explosive growth of the secondary ticket marketplace in the past decade, American teams, leagues and promoters have increasingly turned to more sensitively tuned open-platform models. That means more of an emphasis on single-game sells, rather than the steady yields of season tickets that demand a greater fan commitment. It also means keeping more tickets available until the last minute, even if they creep up to prices that nobody will take.     

People have long framed the importance of the sell-out in terms of its impact on the TV picture – promoter Barry Hearn used to talk about flicking through channels and discovering something unexpected, purely because of the effect of seeing others watching. Even now, there can be no argument that a full house makes for a more compelling broadcast spectacle.

Then again, to tweak a broadly relevant phrase, maybe ticket sales are vanity and income is sanity. Every team going will have a set of revenue targets for each season and each event and they may not involve clearing inventory. When Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor met in their confected boxing contest back in August 2017, about 13,130 people trickled into the 20,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to see it happen. The live gate receipts were still upwards of US$55 million and, frankly, everyone involved made enough money elsewhere.

But there is another dimension to the subject of the sell-out – a moral one, for want of a better term. It’s something that will be getting an airing this week when clubs in English soccer’s Premier League meet to discuss extending a cap of UK£30 on ticket prices for away supporters for all games. Fan groups won the concession with the salient point that transport and accommodation costs combined to preclude make any further outlay difficult to sustain.

And that speaks to an issue at the core of any ticketing discussion. There might be people with the means to buy entry late, on a whim; there will be people who are committed enough to travel great distances if they can afford their way in.

There is a social contract here, involving those performing as well as those who would pay to watch them. If there are empty seats because demand was too low, that is one thing. If it’s because the supply was too expensive, that begins another conversation.