The biggest story of the Games so far, away from the field of play, is undoubtedly the number of empty seats at Olympic venues.
Official figures revealed yesterday show the extent of the problem, with around 60,000 Olympic seats a day – more than one in 10 sold – left empty. The initial response from LOCOG was somewhat baffling with Lord Coe claiming venues were “stuffed to the gunnels”.
Images tweeted by those inside the venues revealed a much different story with swathes of empty seats, even at marquee events such as the Swimming finals – just one of the many ways social media is impacting these Games. Initial ire was misguidedly placed firmly at the door of the sponsors, with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP, fuelling the conjecture. Unsurprisingly, the media were happy to add petrol to the fire, despite their complicity.
Public sentiment has naturally followed suit, with sponsors on the end of some fierce criticism. However, the guilty parties have slowly been revealed as the “Olympic Family” – in a nutshell, officials and the media.
Former IOC Marketing Chief Michael Payne shed further light on the situation, explaining these “floating spectators” are common at every Olympics, and that this is a long-established non-story.
Where they’ve floated to, however, remains a mystery. It certainly isn’t between Olympic events, as the swathes of empty seats have been visible across all venues, throughout the day, every day.
For those who have made the effort to travel to the venues, there’s always the opportunity to tout your tickets, as Sky News revealed when they captured a representative of the Azerbaijani government doing just that at the ExCel.
This is anything but a non-story, and will undoubtedly be a bone of contention once judgement is finally passed on whether London 2012 delivered on its promise to Inspire a Generation.
The IOC and LOCOG somehow failed to foresee what a contentious issue this would be for the British public; an audience that has an insatiable appetite for attending live sport. We’ll travel to the ends of the Earth, and pay through our noses, to watch our teams and athletes compete.
When the greatest sporting event in the world lands on our doorstep, it’s only natural we want to make the most of it. Which is why the continuous shots of empty seats, as a result of faceless administrators and a complicit media, leaves such a sour taste, and is undermining LOCOG’s claim that London would truly be a people’s Games.
One of the prime objectives of every Olympics should be to maximise attendance at each and every venue. Not only as it gives something back to the people of the host nation, but because it improves the atmosphere within venues which inspires athletes to do amazing things. It makes for a greater presentation of broadcast sport, creates a more memorable image of the Games from which sponsors can communicate their brand messages, and it also focuses both traditional and social media’s attention on the sport itself, which is all anyone really wants.
LOCOG are, to their credit, scrambling to find a short-term solution to satisfy the public demand. However, in the midst of all this, they’ve hung their sponsors out to dry, many of which have had to release public statements to defend their use of tickets. It would have been good to see LOCOG return some value to sponsors by using their marketing programmes and channels to reallocate tickets clawed back, but I can’t imagine there’ll be much sympathy for the sponsors, despite their significant contribution to funding the Games.
How this affects the IOC’s approach to future Games, and Rio 2016 in particular, remains to be seen. Maybe we should accept this is the way it’s always been and always will be, or just maybe this could be a watershed moment that motivates the IOC to place greater importance on the needs and wants of those who ultimately pay for Games.
By Paul Whitehead on August 2nd, 2012