World Cup stadiums: What's with all the empty seats?

World Cup stadiums have had gaping holes where people should be. South Africans fret that it's a sign that the Cup will not bring the prosperity that they had been promised by FIFA and politicians.

Lee Jin-man/AP
New Zealand goalkeeper Mark Paston deflects a shot during the World Cup group F soccer match between New Zealand and Slovakia at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, on Tuesday. What's with the empty seats?

Forget, for a moment, the dulcet tones of that popular (and yet curiously plastic) trumpet that South Africans call the vuvuzela.

Look at the stands. Where are all the fans?

Game after game in this World Cup, the stadiums have had gaping holes where people should be. From the opening match – in which South Africa heroically held off a very strong Mexican team in a draw – to the powerful matchup between Netherlands and Denmark yesterday, cameras have shown the lie behind World Cup organizers’ predictions that there would be no empty seats at the World Cup.

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Sports analysts call it embarrassing, FIFA officials admit that it’s concerning, and ordinary South Africans fret that it is yet another sign that these World Cup games will not bring the prosperity that they had been promised by FIFA and by South African politicians.

“It’s a bit of a puzzle,” says Ivo Vegter, a sports columnist for The Daily Maverick, an online South African news publication. “Initially FIFA registered that they had sold tickets, and then the expected half-million foreign visitors fell to around 250,000 to 350,000 visitors, and what that might suggest is that all those hotel rooms will remain open as well.”

“As South Africa, we got the stadiums built, and all FIFA had to do was sell the tickets,” Mr. Vegter adds. “They seem to have made a cock-up of it.”

There are, of course, plenty of potential reasons why people may not be attending Africa’s first hosting of a World Cup. The first reason may be that it is in Africa. Frequent stories about war, famine, crime, and political strife – even if those stories are not actually about South Africa, specifically – can be a turn off.

The second reason may be cost. Plane tickets to Africa from the US can be anywhere from $1,600 to $3,000. This final issue may have been exacerbated by the global economic crunch, which has left up to 10 percent of the US population jobless, and has had even harsher effects in Europe.

Besides the TV footage of empty eats, the numbers also paint a not-too-pretty picture.

The opening game between South Africa and Mexico, broke a South African attendance record with 84,490 fans, but that was still almost 4,000 seats short of Soccer City stadium’s 88,000 gross capacity. Eight thousand seats sat empty during the South Korea-Greece match, even though 40,000 of the 42,486 seats were sold.

Overall, attendance over the first four days of matches has been around 584,396, or 92.5 percent of stadium capacity, FIFA says. Five matches, such as the US-England match on Saturday, came close to 100 percent capacity, although FIFA admits that some other matches have been closer to 73 percent attendance.

“The average attendance so far amounts to 53,126 (the average attendance in 2006 after 11 games was: 52,167),” writes an unnamed FIFA media spokesman by email.

As for the reasons for empty seats, the FIFA official said there are three possible reasons: One, some international and domestic ticket-holders simply didn’t show up. Two, group packages for large tour companies – for games of less interest – did sell, but ticket holders did not come to the stadium on match day. FIFA officials put the blame for that on transport problems, such as bus-links and park-and-ride programs set up by local organizers. Third, the seats closest to the pitch and a majority of view obstructed seats are not sold and in most cases these seats are covered.

Yet, FIFA officials told reporters this weekend that they are looking into the question.

"It looked like a lot of people did not show up at the stadium (for the South Korea-Greece game at Port Elizabeth)," said FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot at a Johannesburg press conference. “We are investigating this."

Transportation for groups to attend matches at more remote locations has not been adequate, Mr. Maingot added, saying “We are making sure this is not the case for other games.”

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