Record sales, empty seats: The dark paradox behind this year's Copa America football tournament

Maracanã stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, shortly before the Peru versus Bolivia match. Photo by Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil, reproduction allowed with attribution.

While some of the world's best football players are on the field, TV cameras show thousands of empty seats in the Brazilian stadiums hosting this year's Copa America, South America's regional world cup. That's an unusual sight for such a high-profile international football championship, least of all in the world capital of the sport. Somehow, though, it has been the reality of this year's tournament.

Copa America is a tournament between the national teams of the countries part of CONMEBOL, the South American Confederation of Football. It has taken place every four years since 1916 — the world's oldest football championship of national teams. A few teams from outside CONMEBOL countries are usually invited to participate. In 2019, those are Japan and Qatar.

This year's tournament will take place from June 14 to July 7 in Brazil, a country that has recently hosted the FIFA World Cup (in 2014) and the Summer Olympics (in 2016, in Rio de Janeiro).

CONMEBOL says the first six matches have generated 42 million Brazilian reais (10 million US dollars). The opening match between Brazil and Bolivia had a revenue of 22 million Brazilian reais (around 5,72 million US dollars), making it the most profitable match in the history of Brazilian football.

But such hefty gains are driven primarily by the steep ticket prices rather than attendance. As Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reports, the average ticket price of the match between Brazil and Bolivia match cost 485 Brazilian reais (126 US dollars), almost half of the country’s minimum wage. While prices varied between 190 and 590 reais (49 and 153 US dollars), VIP seats ranged between 1,600 and 4,300 reais (415 and 1,117 US dollars respectively).

The opening match in Morumbi stadium in São Paulo had an occupation rate of 69 percent of its seats, the tournament's highest so far. CONMEBOL says first eight matches had an average attendance of 29,500 people, but that seems to have been driven primarily by games played by Brazil or Argentina. In turn, most other teams are playing for near-empty stadiums.

As reported by news site UOL, Uruguay’s first match totaled 13,611 payees. Venezuela and Bolivia had the poorest attendance so far with only 4,640 payees — less than 7 percent of the capacity of Mineirão stadium where the match was played.

The continent pulsates.

Uruguay’s goalkeeper, Fernando Muslera, who plays for Turkey’s Galatasaray, said in a press conference:

Ninguém gosta de ver as tribunas vazias. Ninguém gosta. E vocês sabem disso, é estranho, complicado. Esta situação chamou atenção de todos nós até agora

No one likes to see an empty tribune. No one does. And you know it, it’s weird, it’s complicated. This situation caught our attention

Journalist Breiller Pires, writing for Brazil's version of Spanish newspaper El País, has noted on the steady increase on ticket prices in the recent history of Copa América:

Em 2007, na Copa América da Venezuela, quando a economia do país ainda estava longe de entrar em colapso, os ingressos mais baratos para assistir à fase final do torneio custavam menos de 10 dólares. Pouco mais de uma década depois, as entradas “populares” dos jogos de menor apelo saem pelo triplo do valor, em que pese a estagnação econômica no Brasil e vizinhos como a Argentina, sem contar a crise crônica dos venezuelanos.

In Venezuela’s 2007 Copa America, long before the country’s economy collapsed, the cheapest tickets for the final stage costed less than 10 US dollars. Just a little over a decade later, the “popular” tickets for less atractive matches are being sold for three times as much, despite the economic stagnation in Brazil and its neighbors such as Argentina, and not counting the chronic crisis in Venezuela.

Mariana Vantine, who researches football and economic policy, compared tickets prices with minimum wages in Brazil and France, the host country of the 2016 Euro Cup:

About Copa America and the empty stands:

I've made this humble table comparing with the Euro 2016. The relationship between minimum wage and the price of the cheapest ticket in each host country is something we should all pay attention to.

What the comparison shows is that France's minimum wage of 1,446.62 euros could buy up to 57,9 lowest tier tickets (sold by 25 euros), while Brazil's minimum wage of 998 Brazilian reais could only afford 8,3 lowest tier tickets.

Many journalists and fans have pointed that the event itself was poorly promoted by CONMEBOL and the host cities as well. Empty seats don't seem to bother the federation as long as there is a guarantee of profitable sales, says Impedimento, an anonymous Twitter account that comments on South American football:

CONMEBOL didn't worry about any of this when they've priced the tickets. And why would they? They're breaking revenue records even without packing stadiums. In 2024, they might even come up with a hologram system just so they won't have to worry about the inconvience of accomodating people inside the stadium.

An empty football stadium in high-profile leagues is rare in this corner of the world. Just take a look at the historic images of a swarming Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950 World Cup final, when Uruguay defeated Brazil and cast a deafening silence across the stands. Any match in national championships around the region, such as those held in La Bombonera, in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires, will have a sizeable attendance.

In South America, it's impossible to dissociate football culture from social class. Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan writer and football fan, wrote in his “Football in Sun and Shadow” (Fútbol a Sol y Sombra, in Spanish) that the first clubs created by the Plata River were organized by the port's blue-collar workers. Anarchists and socialists, Galeano says, at that time accused the teams at that time of “bourgeois machinations” to dissuade striking and mask class differences.

He writes:

Ha entrado usted, alguna vez, a un estadio vacío? Haga la prueba. Párese en medio de la cancha y escuche. No hay nada menos vacío que un estadio vacío. No hay nada menos mudo que las gradas sin nadie.

Have you ever walked into an empty stadium? Take the test. Stop in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing more empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing more mute than the bleachers without anyone.

Breiller Pires states that the “gentrification process” that is taking over football is to blame for Copa América's poor attendance. Surrounded by corruption scandals, heads of federations and associations have “bought into the idea that by excluding the poor would help end the episodes of violence in the stadiums, as if the violent act of prohibiting passion would justify that experiment,” Pires says.

The question remains: is an empty stadium worthy of South America's football legacy?

1 comment

  • This One

    This article is good and highlights a problem South American football faces. However, how can South America be deemed the world capital of the sport?

    Association Football was created and developed in Europe.
    There are more clubs, players, and leagues in Europe.
    Attendences in Europe have historically been higher and remain so today.
    The World Cup has been held more times in Europe than South America.
    TV viewing figures are substantially higher for major European leagues than South American ones.
    UEFA’s European Championship has much larger viewing figures, TV distribution, and larger sponsorship revenue.
    European nations have won the World Cup more times than South American ones.
    The best players of South America actively seek to progress their careers in Europe (this was happening before the disparity in money that exists today).

    In just about every measurable criteria, South American football is second tier behind European football. So, how can it be described as the world capital of the sport? It’s a problematic statement because it is in the first paragraph, discrediting the author’s knowledge of the sport from the get go (admittedly made up for in the rest of the piece).

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