On February 21, Copa America's organizers held a televised event in the century-old Hammerstein Ballroom just north of Madison Square Garden, an event space that has been home to, among other things, an opera house, a Freemason temple, and a David Bowie concert. They rolled out a literal red carpet on the sidewalk on West 34th Street. The televised broadcast included all the pomp and circumstance you'd expect from a FIFA event, complete with musical performances and celebrity guests.
The hour-long broadcast was mostly fluff; the draw itself took about 10 minutes. Once the matchups were known, tickets went on on sale immediately. Organizers said they anticipated a total attendance of more than two million for the entire tournament.
Copa America Centenario finally kicked off this past weekend, and, so far, it is a tale of two tournaments. On the one hand are the anticipated matches, including every U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina game—despite the absence or injuries of the three biggest names, Messi, Neymar, and Suarez—that have been greeted with near-sellouts or, at the very least, large crowds.
But Copa's opening weekend was mostly…not this. For the most part, the weekend's games were played in front of sparse crowds dotting massive stadiums. Costa Rica and Paraguay played to a scoreless draw in Orlando to 90 degree temperatures and an announced crowd of 14,334. Later that day, Haiti and Peru played in Seattle, America's soccer hotbed, to an official attendance of 20,190.
On Sunday, Jamaica vs. Venezuela in Chicago was sparsely attended as well, with an announced crowd of 25,560 that absolutely nobody believes.
I doubt these empty stands are what Fox Sports Executive David Neal had in mind when he said, "Copa America Centenario promises to be a spectacular showcase for soccer in the United States."
Some could perceive the empty seats as a talking point for just another "when will soccer make it in America" debate. But the story behind the empty seats is not a reflection of American soccer apathy. For comparison, the MLS team Orlando City plays where the Costa Rica-Paraguay match took place, and they average 32,847 per game, or more than double the Copa crowd. The Seattle Sounders have an average attendance of 44,247 fans, also more than double the Haiti-Peru crowd.
Rather than being some grand statement about American soccer fans, the sparse crowds are largely due to high ticket prices, which begs the question of why the tickets were priced not to sell, but to deter.
Before we get to ticket prices, it hardly takes a marketing genius to know Jamaica vs. Venezuela or Haiti vs. Peru will, all things being equal, sell fewer tickets than Mexico or U.S. matches. After all, there are some 35 million Mexicans in the U.S. versus one million Jamaican-Americans and 289,000 Venezuelan-Americans.
Yet simple demographics don't tell the complete story. These Copa America tickets are historically expensive, similar to what you'd find at an NFL game. The absolute cheapest Copa America ticket starts at $50, but upper deck seating runs as high as $95. If you want to sit in the lower level, you'll be out at least $75, but could pay as much as $165.
Some of the tickets were priced as if the organizers were actively discouraging people from buying them. Front row seats for the globally anticipated Group B match between Haiti and Ecuador in New Jersey will cost you a whopping $670 per ticket. For comparison, the annual per capita income in Haiti is $820. Likewise, that ticket costs more than the average monthly income in Ecuador.
And that's just for the group stage. You'd be lucky to get into one of the knockout round matches for less than a Benjamin. Select upper deck seating starts at $65, but most push $100. Lower level seating starts at $95 and runs all the way up to $695. Want to attend the semifinals? You're not getting in the door for less than $95, and the 400 level (way, way, way up there) still have plenty of tickets available for $100.
Just for kicks, I wanted to see the cheapest ticket I could buy for the Uruguay-Venezuela match in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 9 (three days before the game at the time of the search). Ignoring the secondary market—we'll get to that later—I could still snag a ticket for the upper deck behind one of the goals for $50 (there are still a ton of seats available for this game in almost every section). Ticketmaster fees add an extra $7.50, plus if you throw in parking—reported as high as $40 at some venues—you could buy one beer and still possibly attend a Copa America match for less than $100 per person.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Copa America Local Organizing Committee spokesperson told VICE Sports, "Ticket prices were established in line with other high-profile international competitions." Whether or not you agree with this statement depends on your definition of "in line." Euro 2016, which has a higher quality field top to bottom and more historical prestige, sold group stage tickets starting at 25 Euros ($28), with the highest price €145 ($164). The get-in price for the Euro quarterfinals (45 Euros or $51) is the same as Copa group stages and significantly less than Copa's knockout stages.
These prices are also much higher than last year's Copa America in Chile, with an in-the-door price as low as $9 for group stages and $10.80 for Chile and Argentina matches. A friend who attended the 2011 Copa America in Argentina paid around $18 per ticket for the semifinals and "splurged" on some nicer seats to other games for around $45.
It is true, as Copa's spokesperson pointed out, that "the tournament is already on track to be the most attended Copa America in its 100-year history." But that doesn't automatically mean the tickets were appropriately priced for all matches. The Local Organizing Committee declined to go into detail at how the ticket prices were set.
There's plenty of evidence Copa America ticket prices didn't match demand. The most obvious indicators, of course, are the empty seats. But the resale market also shows fans who bought tickets are looking to dump them for less than face value. Hell, some poor sap who thought he had an arbitrage opportunity and snapped up 24 tickets to Uruguay-Venezuela is now trying to dump them for $12 a pop.
The same holds true for other games. Ecuador-Peru is selling for $20 at StubHub. Chile-Bolivia tickets start at $25. A sure sign your product is not priced appropriately is that it can't move on the secondary market despite steep markdowns.
So why are ticket prices so high to begin with? One potential explanation is that all the other revenue—sponsorship and TV money—goes to CONCACAF and CONMEBOL while ticket revenue is the only way U.S. Soccer can recover their costs, which Gulati called "not cheap." Last week, Gulati told Sports Illustrated that an average per game attendance of 35,000 will be "sufficient to make the federation's investment worthwhile."
Holding some matches in smaller, soccer-specific stadia wasn't an option, because the short time frame to put the tournament together meant the locations had to be selected before the draw. The organizers didn't want to accidentally end up with Chile-Argentina at a 20,000 person stadium.
Still, this doesn't explain why the same pricing was used across all group stage matches, or why they were so high to begin with. Considering all the empty seats, even in matches with big draws—53,158 is a solid crowd for the Brazil-Ecuador game, but the Rose Bowl fits 92,000—it's easy to see the ticket prices didn't hit the equilibrium.
Dynamic pricing seems to have only been used by the tournament to increase prices for particularly popular matches, not reduce them for unpopular ones. Teams in various North American sports have been using dynamic pricing models for almost five years, which adjusts ticket prices based on real-time demand data, such as what games, sections, and seats are viewed by customers, although many teams are hesitant to lower prices using algorithms, since it would discourage fans from purchasing when tickets go on sale. Prices for tonight's Argentina-Chile match have more than doubled due to dynamic pricing, but the face value tickets for less popular matches remained steady.
One potential answer is that organizers didn't want to set a precedent of lowering prices if fans don't bite. This explanation wouldn't make much sense if the tournament truly is a "once-in-a-lifetime soccer event," as Copa's spokesperson wrote, but that doesn't appear to be the case. According to ESPN Deportes, Copa America may be permanently relocated to the United States, perhaps in a combined tournament with the Gold Cup. Which, in the end, explains the ticket prices perfectly. Ticket prices are high not because U.S. Soccer needs to recoup costs, but because they are about to monopolize major American soccer tournaments. After all, a $100 seat in the nosebleeds is still cheaper than a flight to Europe.
Correction: this article originally stated Ticketmaster was not using dynamic pricing at all for Copa America matches. They have been using dynamic pricing, but only to raise ticket prices, not to lower them. The article has been updated to reflect this.