Empty Seats at China's Sellout Olympics

Corporate sponsors, bad weather, and visa problems take some of the blame for empty seats in Beijing, even though many were turned away for advance tickets

Li Ligong had been trying to buy tickets for the Beijing Olympics since last August. In each round, he would camp out with friends three days before sales began hoping to buy seats for gymnastics, basketball, and swimming events, but he had no luck. "We couldn't get any tickets," says Li, 37, owner of a building decoration company and member of a Beijing soccer fan club.

All that changed on Aug. 11. Li got a call from the head of soccer fan club asking if he'd be interested in watching an Olympic doubleheader on Aug. 12 for free, including the game between Canada and Sweden. The next night, the club brought more than 100 fans dressed in identical yellow shirts to fill the empty seats at the Worker's Stadium and cheer. "Before the Olympics began, our fan club held a meeting, and the head of the club said: 'If there are not enough people, the fan club will be asked to fill the stands regardless if you like to watch it or not,'" says Li.

It's a mystery to spectators and journalists. Before the Olympics began, Beijing Olympic organizers reported that all 6.8 million tickets to Olympic events were sold out (BusinessWeek.com, 10/30/07) for the first time in the 112-year history of the Summer Games. Yet in the first week of the Olympics, there are visible patches of empty seats throughout the stadiums. It's not just at minor events but also popular stalwarts such as swimming and basketball. "There are so many empty seats. I was just at the China-Canada game, and it was insane how many seats are open," says Michael Marone, an executive with Major League Baseball's Beijing office, who attended the first day of baseball games on Aug. 13.

Blame it on the Weather

Beijing Olympic organizers have been trying to "save face" by bussing in crowds from soccer fan clubs, high schools, and local neighborhoods to fill the empty seats. But even with inflated statistics, there's undeniable evidence that most Olympic venues are less than full. On Aug. 11 there were 20 competitions in 18 stadiums throughout China attended by 40,000 spectators, according to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG). Only two of stadiums were more than 90% full. Six of the venues were more than 80% full. More than half had at least 30% of seats empty.

"We're very concerned about the stadiums not being full. I believe that it's due to the weather," Wang Wei, executive vice-president of BOCOG, told journalists at an Aug. 12 press briefing. Still, while rain, heat, and humidity have been a problem, Wang admitted it's not just the weather. "Also, for some events such as basketball and beach volleyball, the ticket is for the entire morning, afternoon, or evening. They may want to only watch one game. I believe there are a lot of factors at work here."

To be sure, Beijing is not the only Olympic host city to be plagued by empty seats. Four years ago there were many empty seats at the Athens Games, which only managed to sell two-thirds of the tickets made available to the public. Another factor: At all Olympics, the best seats in the house are given to the local organizing committee or other VIPs but are not always used. (Being a VIP does not necessarily guarantee tickets to the most popular events. Even the world's richest man, Bill Gates, (BusinessWeek.com, 8/11/08) had to settle for tickets to badminton at the Beijing Olympics).

Tickets Are Fine, But What About Visas?

Then there's the lion's share of the tickets that have been given to athletes and to corporate sponsors instead of being sold to the public. One of the perks companies such as Coca-Cola (KO), McDonald's (MCD), or Visa (V) get in exchange for spending tens of millions of dollars to sponsor the Olympics (BusinessWeek.com,7/31/08) is free tickets for their clients. Getting people to fill those seats can be tough. "I just spoke to a couple of the sponsors and other companies, and they said they've had some problems with the RSVPs," says Li Li Leung, managing director of Helios Partners China, an Atlanta sports marketing firm that counts Lenovo, BHP Billiton, and Mars as clients.

Another explanation is problems getting visas. In the months leading up to the Olympics, China tightened its visa policies for "security considerations" (BusinessWeek.com, 8/4/08). Foreigners wanting to come to China for business or to attend the Olympics were required to get an invitation letter from someone in China. "Some visitors who had planned to come, in the end, decided not to come due to the difficulties in obtaining travel documents," adds Li. And many of those who were successful have been forced to stay in hotels that are charging abnormally high room rates during the Olympics.

The tighter visa policy also forced some foreigners living and working in China to leave the country, even if they had Olympic tickets. When Mathilde Deffieux was working in China earlier this year, she bought tickets to the boxing event. But she was forced to leave China by July 28 and return home to France when her visa was extended for one month, instead of the normal three months. "I was really disappointed," says Deffieux, 26, who ended up giving away her tickets to friends. "My friends, they're all working. I don't know if they really have time to go."

Bussing Them In

Of course, there is one silver lining. The empty seats have created opportunities for those of us in Beijing to attend Olympic events. On Aug 9, I was invited by Coca-Cola, one of a dozen Olympic Partner Program sponsors, to watch the U.S.A. vs. Japan women's indoor volleyball match. Coke had 15 seats at the game but only used five (me and another journalist, Coca-Cola's public relations executive, and two interns). There had been apparently more Coca-Cola employees at the first game, China vs. Venezuela, but they left after China won.

And when all else fails, the ruling Communist Party can mobilize students and volunteers to fill empty seats, as they have done so far for soccer, volleyball, and boxing. Sun Hao, a 17-year-old student at Haidian Foreign Languages Experimental School, and his classmates were bussed into the Worker's Gymnasium to fill the stands for the boxing matches on Aug. 11. "Because we are not 18 yet, we cannot be Olympic volunteers. We are using this way to support the Olympics," he says.