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Heat and Empty Seats are Recurrent Issues for Sport – and Here’s Why

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Empty seats: The women's 100m final was hosted in front of very few spectators ( AP )

By David Owen |

I got back this week from a punchy and entertaining Corfu Literary Festival to find the sports world once again preoccupied by the issues of empty seats and excessive heat.

One Twitter exchange between sports marketing luminaries @MCSaatchiSteveM and @shaymantim ran as follows:

“A sport in turmoil that doesn’t seem to realize it. So incredibly missable as the crowds show.”

“The world’s most under-performing sport. Huge potential but going backwards.”

Another sports marketing veteran, @MichaelRPayne1, opined as follows: “We should adopt a new term – not talking about empty seats but EMPTY STADIUM – a totally different mind boggling dimension.”

Meanwhile, Portuguese race walker João Vieira was quoted by the BBC as describing conditions for the 50 kilometer event in which he became the oldest person to win a medal in the history of the World Athletics Championships as “hell – very, very hot”.

Vieira, 43, was also critical of the 11.30pm start-time for the four hours-plus event, commenting: “That’s the time to leave a nightclub.”

The issues have resurfaced at this moment of course because of Doha 2019, which is taking place this week in the tiny, hydrocarbon-rich Gulf state of Qatar, a place that has become an improbably regular host of major international sports events.

But they are not exactly a new thing: I can remember heat emerging as a concern a quarter of a century ago at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States, while the first “empty seats” story I can recall writing was at the Athens 2004 Olympics.

With athletes and live spectators again expected to be obliged to brave high temperatures at next year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup and, unless the weather gods are exceptionally merciful, at Paris 2024 as well, it is worth posing the question: Why does history keep repeating itself?

The answer is encapsulated in that old journalistic adage, “Follow the money”.

Or, put less pithily, those most directly affected – athletes and fans or live spectators – plainly do not feature at the top of modern sport’s priority list.

As well as determining the best of the best, most World Championships and similar are fundraisers and shop-windows for the sport or sports in question.

Making as much money as possible matters because the proceeds – some of them at least – are used to develop the sport around the world.

International development issues, clearly, might also be among factors taken into account when deciding where future events are to be held.

The most important source of funding for elite sport in recent years has been the sale of broadcasting rights.

A glance at the 2019 edition of the Olympic Marketing Fact File shows that the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s broadcast revenue over the last completed Olympic quadrennium – 2013-16 – totalled $4.16 billion.

This compares with Olympic ticketing revenue for the same period of $527 million, nearly eight times less.

Under the model applied to Olympic events, most ticketing revenue goes to the local Organizing Committees rather than the IOC.

But on pursuing the story of those Athens empty seats 15 years ago, I was told that this Organising Committee was banking on getting less than 10 per cent of the total operational budget for the Games from ticket sales.

This compared with 49 per cent from its share of the IOC’s broadcasting and sponsorship revenues, and nearly 13 per cent from local sponsors.

With broadcasting such an important source of funding – and eyeballs – it should come as little surprise if administrators prioritise TV prime time in the most lucrative markets over details such as actual bums on seats and ambient temperatures.

Most of us can only guess the extent to which the finances of the World Athletics Championships compare to those of an Olympic Games.

This is because the International Association of Athletics Federations. to the best of my knowledge, still does not deign to make its accounts available to the general public. 

What it is, I think, fair to assume is that whatever reasons wealthy Qatar had for wanting to stage this week’s event, the trivial amount of cash it might have generated by filling stands that have got rather fuller as the week has gone on did not feature high among them.

The immediate problem for sports, of course, is that sparsely-populated arenas are not a good look if you are trying to convince junior that the javelin is an exciting alternative to Fortnite or World of Tanks.

Virtual solutions are available for broadcasters to mask tepid atmospheres; the sort of social media commentary with which this article started is altogether tougher to airbrush away.

One might imagine that with hitherto toothless Athletes’ Commissions beginning to develop the odd molar, resistance to competing in particularly demanding or uncomfortable conditions might be ratcheting up.

But, whereas Seoul 1988 and Sydney 2000 were both staged predominantly in the latter part of September, and Tokyo 1964 did not even start until October 10, the international sports calendar appears so regimented now that the Summer Olympics are earmarked all but invariably for that six-week window encompassing late-July and August.

In such circumstances, one is entitled at least to hope that those administrators who insist repeatedly that today’s athletes are their top priority should front up and explain that if they are sometimes asked to compete in sub-optimal or frankly difficult conditions, it is for the greater good of maximising development dollars flowing into their sport.

I shall not be holding my breath.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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