The 2014 Incheon Asian Games kick off today with 13,000 athletes from 45 countries participating in 36 sports with 439 gold medals up for grabs. The 16-day event, held every four years, will bring the best athletes from across Asia together in one of the world’s high-profile sporting occasions.
While there promises to be some intense competition over the course of the games, those tuning in on televisions around the world are likely to see a lot of empty stands (much like the swaths of barren seats at Sochi) as South Koreans have had a less than luke-warm response to Incheon’s moment in the sun.
Tickets to see high-profile athletes such as Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan are strong, but overall sales have been quite disappointing for organizers who look to the games to further increase the country’s international profile.
Incheon’s organizing committee (IAGOC) said on Monday that overall ticket sales had reached only 18 percent for the 36 sports—including the opening and closing ceremonies on Sept. 19 and Oct. 4.
The city of Incheon, about 25 km west of Seoul, has invested $2 billion to host the Games. While a small number compared to the $20 billion spent by Guangzhou, China when it held the event in 2010, its big money for the South Korea port city, which has the largest debt of South Korea’s six major metropolitan areas.
While there is the silver lining of jam-packed stands for South Korean athletes such as gymnast Son Yeon-jae, badminton star Lee Yong-dae’s or any event involving the South Korean nemesis to the north, sales for football competitions are thus far just seven percent and overall athletics a mere eight percent, IAGOC official Lee Jun-sung told Reuters this week.
Not Enough Entertainment Without NK Cheerleaders?
Lee was not short on reasons for why Koreans are less than enthused by the major international event, citing financial woes, the Sewol Ferry disaster and the fact that North Korea decided not to send their cheerleading squad.
Lee additionally made note of South Korean sports culture as a reason for lackluster ticket sales.
“That’s the reality. South Korea is not like other developed countries which have advanced sports culture or history of Games,” said Lee. “People may think it is a waste of time to see unpopular events.”
The Investment Risk of International Games
Korea is not the only country to be stung by poor ROI on international sporting events. In Beijing, the 2008 Olympics ended up costing the PRC $132 million per event. Sochi’s cost for the last Winter Olympics hit an astounding 520 million per event. There was even a comical Bloomberg report comparing the $51 billion cost of Sochi to the cost of going to Mars, which could be bankrolled with a mere $2.5 billion.
Perhaps that should be the company line when local media and social welfare groups press Incheon officials afterwards on an investment that is shaping up to have little return: “Hey, at least it was cheaper than going to Mars!”
Official Asian Games website: www.incheon2014ag.org
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