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They can’t stand to see empty seats

Unused tickets have created an uproar

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / August 1, 2012
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LONDON — Chants of “Let’s Go GB” filled Riverbank Arena during a women’s field hockey match between Great Britain and Korea Tuesday. Spectators filled the arena, too.

And that was an encouraging turn of events for the London Olympics.

Since competition started, empty seats have made for embarrassing photo ops and, once again, prompted tough questioning about the allotment of Olympic tickets. Large sections of vacant seats have been visible at “sold-out” events such as gymnastics, swimming, basketball, and tennis, as well as at soccer, table tennis, badminton, and equestrian. The sight of unused seats angered Brits who were unable to secure tickets during an application process. When ticket sales started last year, London organizers received more than 20 million ticket applications from 1.8 million people. There were about 6.6 million tickets available to fans from the United Kingdom.

“It’s horrible to see venues with empty seats,” said Alison Clamp of Birmingham, England. “And it’s hard when you keep trying to get seats from England and you can’t get them. I got seats from France and Holland from official re-sellers. And if you’ve paid a lot of money for tickets and they’re talking about cutting prices, I wouldn’t be happy. It’s very difficult to find the right solution, but it’s better to have people in seats than not.”

The unused seats likely correspond to tickets allocated to a combination of groups, including dignitaries, foreign countries, sponsors, and national Olympic committees, though sponsors have been very vocal in denying responsibility for the vacancies. Almost 15 percent of the 8.8 million tickets available to the Games go to national Olympic committees and foreign countries. Fault may also lie with foreign ticket agencies and their distribution methods.

Previously, LOCOG had come under fire for lacking transparency with ticket sales. Government officials worried that organizers had supplied a less-than-promised amount of affordable tickets to popular events like the men’s track 100-meter final. Now, organizers and officials have a much different, and more difficult ticketing problem to solve.

And London is not alone in dealing with empty seats. The Beijing, Athens, and Sydney Olympics faced similar problems, leading British Olympic Association chairman Lord Colin Moynihan to call for the IOC to change ticket-selling policies for the Games. Moynihan also asked that the blame game be stopped.

“This is such a major and complex issue,” said Moynihan. “Moving forward, this is an issue I hope the IOC will take a lead on. It is a major task to get any organizing committee to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a ticketing operation that is highly complex from a clean sheet of paper.”

For its part, the IOC said it was “happy” with the way LOCOG was handling the issue. In the short term, London organizers announced that they reclaimed 3,800 tickets for 30 sessions over 15 sports. LOCOG also continues trying to get tickets back from national federations. At a daily press briefing Tuesday with representatives from the IOC and LOCOG, healthy attendance figures were announced — 856,000 on Saturday for an 86 percent attendance rate, 900,000 on Sunday with a 92 percent attendance rate, 370,000 on Monday for an 88 percent attendance rate. Those attendance figures strained credulity given the visuals from venues on those three days.

But an informal survey of a handful of venues Tuesday seemed to indicate an improving seat situation. At the Basketball Arena, a game between Lithuania and Nigeria drew a large, spirited crowd. There were a smattering of empty seats, but nothing like the large empty sections previously seen. Only one relatively small cluster of 17 unfilled seats in the upper tier stood out. Much like basketball, there were unoccupied seats here and there at field hockey, but nothing glaring. A volunteer who had worked at the Riverbank Arena since the men’s and women’s field hockey tournaments started said large sections that were once empty had been full for Tuesday’s matches.

At a box office just outside the Basketball Arena, avid fans queued up for resold tickets, waiting more than an hour for entry into one of the Olympic Park venues. They had figured out that by purchasing a ground ticket to the Olympic Park for $15 that put them in the best position to claim recycled tickets for about $8. There is a Wimbledon-style returns process at venues and within the Olympic Park where fans can purchase tickets people return when they leave events.

“I kept trying to find tickets online, but I saw only the most expensive ones” said Richard Savill of Suffolk, England, as he stood in line. “I’m frustrated. They probably could be doing a bit better, but they probably can’t resell all the tickets if someone doesn’t show up. They’ve taken the money. That’s the problem. You can’t have it two times. So, we’ll keep queuing. We’re British, aren’t we?”

And despite frustrations about empty seats and ticket sales, many Brits find themselves caught up in the excitement of the Games and increasingly eager to see whatever they can.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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