Pricey tickets and low TV ratings: has Copa Amrica missed a trick in the US?

Attendances at this summers tournament have perhaps not been as disastrous as some have suggested. But there has been plenty to keep the casual fan away

Whatever the outcome when the US face Argentina in Houston on Tuesday, there will be a sense of mission accomplished for Jrgen Klinsmanns team. The target was reaching the Copa Amrica Centenarios final four, an aim achieved with victory over Ecuador in the quarter-finals.

Does an analysis of the Copa as a whole produce the same feeling of satisfaction? On the pitch its been solid entertainment overall. Like any summer tournament, there have been a few dud matches, counterbalanced by some exciting goal-rich encounters. Only three fixtures so far have failed to produce a goal in normal time. Each group was undermined by having one team that struggled badly, limiting the drama in the mini-leagues.

There were seductive storylines. The early exit of Brazil, the surprise progress of Venezuela, the host nation reaching the last four despite a torpid start and Mexicos preposterous 7-0 thrashing by Chile, which dimmed Tecatitos star just as the winger looked set to be the breakout player of the tournament. If there was no Neymar, at least Lionel Messi recovered from a back injury and excelled.

Minor embarrassments such as the national anthem mix-ups will be forgotten (except in Uruguay, Chile, and Pitbulls house), but will it be easy to expunge the sight of thousands of empty seats at stadiums, even for US games, from memory?

Remembering the remarkable scenes at watch parties and the extensive media coverage during the 2014 World Cup, its tempting to contrast the empty seats and shortage of scarf-clad TV hosts on major networks and wonder if the lack of buzz and butts on seats indicates a regression in the countrys relationship with the sport that could potentially impact a US 2026 World Cup bid.

Doesnt the thing even matter enough to merit an updated Ann Coulter column about how an interest in football is a sign of moral decay? Two years ago, an estimated 30,000 fans went to Soldier Field in Chicago to watch the US lose to Belgium on screen. nTwo weeks ago, fewer than 40,000 were present in the 61,000-capacity arena to see Klinsmanns side beat Costa Rica 4-0 on site; and many were clad in Ticos red. While Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have drawn vast crowds, nine group games attracted fewer than 30,000 fans.

It makes sense when you consider the high ticket prices and questionable prestige and awareness of the tournament this far north of the equator. When the US beat Ecuador 2-1 last Thursday, only 47,322 supporters were at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, the city thats home to the franchise that draws the biggest crowds in MLS. The decibel level was high, but the attendance was 20,000 below capacity (the Sounders, incidentally, average home attendance was 44,247 last season).

Something is clearly amiss when youre browsing the ticket prices for the semi-finals and wondering if youve stumbled on the site for the Broadway musical, Hamilton. Actually, thats probably being unfair on Hamilton. On Sunday afternoon the asking price on the official Copa site for one front-row seat for US v Argentina on the halfway line was $1,300, thanks to demand-adjusted pricing for an event thats close to a full house. Hamiltons priciest non-resale ticket is $849 and some seats cost only $10.

When checked the day before the US-Ecuador match, CenturyLink Fields upper tier prices on Ticketmaster ranged from $65-$250, before booking fees. Lower-tier seats near a corner flag were $150-$450. Overall, prices were comparable to what youd pay if you want to watch the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL next season, but more than twice as pricey as a Seattle Sounders MLS fixture.

Also on Wednesday, official platinum seats in the lower tier near the halfway line at MetLife stadium in New Jersey for the Colombia v Peru quarter-final were $875, which would be a high monthly income in both countries. Yet the stadium was near capacity.

The natural conclusion is that pricing that treats the melting-pot nation as an ATM has discouraged some US supporters who, while potentially interested, are not willing or able to spend $500 or more to take their family to a group-stage match in a tournament with limited prestige outside South America, especially if theyre not going to see star names. US-based fans with ties to the top overseas teams, meanwhile, may have grown up with the Copa, have few chances to see their national side live, and football might be their favourite sport.

The Copa has reminded us that outside a World Cup year, with little mainstream media exposure, the US team are not the biggest draw in their own country. Its true of the domestic league, as well. Relatively affordable prices, star names and a sense of occasion led to more than 109,000 fans for Manchester Uniteds friendly with Real Madrid in Michigan in 2014, while many MLS teams struggle to entice 20,000 supporters to their matches.


div class=”u-responsive-ratio”> Mexico

Mexico fans have turned out in huge numbers for their teams games. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Dan Wiersema, a spokesman for the American Outlaws supporters group, said that the Outlaws sold out their sections in the stadiums and their watch parties around the country were packed. But for casual fans it definitely seems like its priced them out, he said. I think [the organisers] overshot a little bit, he added. I hope its a cautionary tale for event planners America still has a large population of casual fans.

A tournament spokesman told the Guardian by email that ticket prices were established in line with other high-profile international competitions. The average price for group games is approximately $100. Prices were set and series tickets went on sale before the draw.

Euro 2016 has plenty of expensive seats, but prices for group games start at only 25 euros ($28) – and even a seat at the final can be bought for as low as 85 euros ($96). It also has several venues with a capacity around 40,000.

The Copas organisers set a minimum stadium size of 50,000 when bids were invited last year. Venues holding 40-50,000 would arguably have been optimal for many fixtures, but (ballparks aside), Americas major cities tend to have soccer-specific venues with capacities of about 25,000 and NFL arenas that hold 60,000-plus.

Geographical distribution, from Seattle to Orlando, Los Angeles to Boston, took the Copa to the whole country, but the spread of locations made it expensive to follow one team. The US, for example, have played in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and now Texas. Next, theyre headed for Arizona or New Jersey.

As for television: Univision Deportes, a Spanish-language network, announced that its Copa group stage ratings were higher than 2014 World Cup equivalents, averaging 2.6 million viewers (more favourable kick-off times doubtless helped).

But English-language Copa ratings have been substantially lower on Fox Sports compared with ESPNs record World Cup 2014 figures. More than 11 million viewers watched the US beat Ghana on ESPN two years ago, while the USs loss to Colombia this month drew 1.5 million (the tournament has not been helped by taking place at the same time as the NBA and Stanley Cup finals). As World Soccer Talk reported, even with the disadvantage of daytime kick-offs in the US, early Euro 2016 ratings outstripped the Copa.

A sense of perspective is needed, though. Sunil Gulati, the US soccer federation president, told before the tournament that the event would be financially worthwhile for the hosts with an average attendance of 35,000.

It looks like it will end up with a total attendance of about 1.5 million, good for an average crowd of roughly 47,000. Last years Copa in Chile garnered an average of 25,227 fans. The 2011 and 2007 tournaments <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>drew averages of 33,947 and 40,393 respectively. The tournament was only confirmed in October after a summer of turmoil in Conmebol and Concacaf caused by the Fifa corruption scandal. There was limited time to plan it. And as a special one-off centenary event on a different continent, coming only a year after the last edition, the extent of its appeal was uncertain.

Any suggestions that the empty seats could have an adverse effect on a future World Cup bid are surely wide of the mark, too. Fifa, an organisation that gave the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a nation smaller than Connecticut, is hardly going to be worried about Americas potential to host a lucrative and well attended tournament in a decades time because the Copas controllers overestimated Seattles appetite for Haiti v Peru.

USA 94 still holds the World Cup total attendance record, even though it had fewer teams, and consequently fewer games, than subsequent iterations. Not only is the sport now more popular in the US, the countrys population has grown by about 60 million since 1994. The incredible thing about Americas diversity is that we already have a lot of the fans established in our country because of immigration. Theres a ready fanbase, said Wiersema.

In the end, perhaps the biggest criticism of this Copa will be not related to the football or the finances, but that it chiefly catered to the wealthy and the already-passionate, when, after the febrile days of 2014, we might expect a major tournament where the Americans thrive to have a strong evangelical streak, sweeping up the curious and turning them into converts.

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