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$25 hot dogs, sky-high ticket prices: Lack of fans shows

todayJuly 5, 2024 11

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Monday’s crowd of 55,460 at Arrowhead Stadium for the United States men’s national team’s 1-0 loss to Uruguay perfectly captured the contrast when it comes to attendances at the 2024 Copa América.

On one hand, the boisterous, engaged and bipartisan crowd was up for the occasion of a high-stakes game. The crowds are roughly the same as Euro 2024 — Europe’s continental tournament that is being staged in Germany from June 14-July 14 — that saw about 50,000 fans per game attend the group stage. However, Monday’s attendance also fell well short of Arrowhead’s capacity of 76,000-plus, with about half of the entire upper deck empty for the tournament’s host nation in what was effectively in a must-win game against a storied — and, regardless of FIFA rankings, favored — South American side. It is not an anomaly.

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Whether the glass was half-full or half-empty depends on how one analyzes the myriad factors around everything from complicated ticketing procedures to weather that has, at times during the Copa América, been dangerously hot and oppressive. However, the price of tickets — not just in Kansas City, but across all 14 venues in the tournament — cannot be ignored as a deterrent to fan turnout.

Moments before kickoff on Monday, the farthest seats from the field, in the last row of the upper deck — with something like the “view from the moon” that TV viewers were experiencing on the world feed — were still on sale for $115 plus fees on Ticketmaster. Those weren’t inflated resale market tickets; they were the going rate for primary market tickets from the organizers. Conmebol, using dynamic ticket pricing, thought people would pay that much for a group-stage game of a continental tournament in which the Americans, even as hosts, were technically guests.

The match was one data point among plenty in a tournament filled with a mixed bag of crowd support. Conmebol says nine of the first 20 matches of the tournament were sellouts (though the confederation oddly only lists “100%” capacity for one of those, with the rest somewhere between 93% and 99% full). Contrast with that several stadiums that were roughly half-full, including some eyesores in Las Vegas (Ecuador vs. Jamaica) and Santa Clara, California (Ecuador vs. Venezuela.)

Meanwhile, the lowest crowd of the tournament so far was 11,622 for Peru vs. Canada in Children’s Mercy Park, which has a capacity of around 18,000. Though it was also about 100 degrees out that day.

The USMNT opened the tournament at AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas, drawing 47,873 fans to the 80,000-seat venue. Again, the attendance figure in a vacuum is a significant, respectable number, but Conmebol clearly miscalculated American consumers’ willingness to pay up to watch a group-stage game against lowly Bolívia.

40486435About half of the entire upper deck at Arrowhead Stadium was empty for the USMNT’s must-win game against Uruguay. John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

Weston McKennie, who previously played for FC Dallas, said after the Bolivia match at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, that it’s “sometimes frustrating coming back and playing in big stadiums and not filling it up,” but he said he was “proud” of the Dallas area for producing an energetic crowd.

Four days later, in soccer-mad Atlanta, a crowd of 59,145 turned up at the 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was loud and up for the occasion of a wild match (and ultimately costly loss for the 10-man USMNT) but it similarly boasted a somewhat empty upper deck.

Conmebol had its reasons for ambitious asking prices. Eight years ago, the United States hosted the Copa América Centenario, to great financial success. U.S. Soccer made around $75 million from that tournament, which increased its year-over-year cash on hand from $65.4 million at the end of the 2016 fiscal year — which ended on March 31, 2016 — to $104.6 million at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, according to USSF financial disclosures.

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All that money flowing into U.S. Soccer’s coffers drew the ire of Conmebol, sources recently told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, and the South American confederation viewed this Copa América — held in the U.S. under different circumstances following the pandemic, and with the confederation in charge — to cash in on the U.S. soccer fan market that global entities covet.

The greed shows itself in more discrete ways, too, like charging media $25 for a hot dog “meal” (to use the term generously). Sure, feeding journalists is low on the list of things fans might care about, but it is illustrative either of Conmebol not fully understanding this remote host market or, more brazen, simply not caring and trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the event.

Fans have felt that strain on the wallet in other ways, too, including food and beverage, and parking that ran for $75 or more, but those are par for the course at venues for any event now and not specific to Copa América. Tickets, however, are a direct reflection interest, and the supply and demand balance, in any given event.

From ticket prices to marketing, Conmebol has not struck the right balance to make this tournament cut through the noise of a crowded sports and entertainment calendar.

Conmebol is the organizer of Copa América and will not be running the 2026 World Cup (that’s FIFA’s job, in collaboration with hosts USA, Canada and Mexico), but this tournament is something of a test run for that big stage for everything from field installation — and there were plenty of complaints about that — to marketing, logistics, and tickets.

The generally inconsistent consumer response to this year’s Copa América, outside of a few well-supported teams like Argentina (the Lionel Messi effect), Brazil and Mexico (a second home team of sorts) should be a hard lesson for 2026 World Cup organizers who have promised record crowds and revenue. U.S. Soccer just launched a legacy program for the 2026 World Cup that is centered around grassroots development. Part of making that a sincere effort will be making matches accessible and affordable to the average person.

For years, external entities have viewed the U.S. soccer fan as some kind of unicorn willing to pay for any product at any price. It is why summer friendly tours featuring big teams in the U.S. started to boom 20-plus years ago, and it explains more modern ideas like LaLiga‘s controversial desire to stage a regular-season game in the United States.

This year’s Copa América, however, has shown that there is in fact a ceiling on what fans are willing to pay. That ceiling might be high, but it has been made abundantly clear by the relatively expensive seats left empty during most matches.

Written by: Ag Entertainment

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