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Could the empty seats and high ticket prices at Copa America have been a missed opportunity leading up to the World Cup?


Follow live coverage of Argentina vs Canada in the semi-final of Copa America today

When Argentina returns to MetLife Stadium to face Canada on Tuesday, they will likely do so before a soldout crowd. When they faced Chile in East Rutherford, it was the highest-attended match this Copa America so far.

It’s the norm at major tournaments: wherever the Argentina national team goes, fans follow.

This summer, they have gone from Atlanta to New Jersey to Miami to Houston and now back to New Jersey. The demand to catch Argentina and captain Lionel Messi has meant tickets to watch the world champions have been the most expensive. Yet fans have shown their willingness to pay hundreds of dollars for a single match ticket, if not more.

The average cost per ticket at Copa America is high anyway, however; estimated at more than $200 (£160), per multiple accounts. As we enter the final stages of the tournament, ticket prices are only getting higher.


Argentina fans at Hard Rock Stadium (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

For organizers CONMEBOL, attendance at this year’s Copa America may be considered a resounding success. Eight days before the tournament, officials boasted how more than one million tickets had already sold for the first 32 games. Alejandro Domínguez, president of South American football’s governing body, said officials were “filled with excitement and enthusiasm”.

Yet there have also been less-than-spectacular crowds at several group-stage matches, with every empty seat in cavernous NFL stadiums representing a missed opportunity to attract a fan who could have been enthralled by the growth of soccer in the United States. Never mind the impact on players or how poor those empty seats look to those watching at home on television.

While Copa America began with a reported sellout of just over 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta when Argentina was in town, the following five fixtures drew crowds that were tens of thousands of fans below each stadium’s capacity.

It wasn’t until the fifth day of competition, Colombia-Paraguay at NRG Stadium in Houston on June 24, that we saw another full stadium, as the table below shows. (Green indicates matches which were considered sold out, while red was below 66 per cent of capacity — and note that Levi’s Stadium has an expandable capacity.)

CONMEBOL said it considers nine of the 24 group-stage matches as sellouts. Copa America Centenario in 2016 — which also took place in the United States — sold more than 1.5 million tickets and has served as a benchmark for organizers this summer. By the conclusion of the group stage, sales were on track to reach similar figures to 2016, according to Ruben Olavarrieta, CONMEBOL’s commercial manager in charge of ticketing.

Before the tournament, Nery Pumpido, CONMEBOL’s deputy secretary general of soccer, told The Athletic that tickets were “set at a price that I think has been important, because people have come to buy a lot”.

Overpriced tickets were out of the confederation’s control, he continued, because the dynamic ticket pricing that determines those figures is handled by the ticketing partners at each stadium.

“From what has been demonstrated so far,” Pumpido said last month, “the price has been correct.”

Dynamic pricing has the potential to price out fans from some nations competing in the tournament. Not only are tickets costly, but any tourist attending matches would also have to account for hotels and flights in the United States — and also the travel between stadiums if they want to catch multiple matches.

Average net salaries in many of the competing Latin American nations fall below $900 (£700) per month. In Argentina, where inflation is among the highest in the world, the average monthly net salary was estimated at $423.32 last year, per Statista.

In many ways, dynamic ticketing favors American buyers with higher incomes and lower travel costs. The large diasporas of Latino communities across the U.S, coupled with the popularity of some tournament favorites, means Argentina, Brazil and Colombia have drawn the biggest crowds, but not in every market. When Colombia and Costa Rica battled it out in Glendale, Arizona, only 27,386 filled the 63,400-capacity State Farm Stadium.

For the July 4 quarterfinal match at NRG Stadium, where Argentina ousted Ecuador after a painstaking penalty shootout, the cost for a single resale ticket on Ticketmaster started at $176 on match day. Even eight minutes into play, tickets on StubHub were still going for $120.


Panama vs Bolivia in Orlando drew a crowd of 12,933, when the stadium capacity is 25,500 (Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)


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