Why do Copa América games have empty seats? It’s about more than ticket prices

Jun 22, 2024; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Ecuador defender Angelo Preciado (17) and Venezuela forward Eduardo Bello (right) reach for the ball during the second half at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON and ARLINGTON, Texas — Perhaps you have seen a few damning photos floating around social media. Or perhaps you have simply watched a 2024 Copa América match, caught a glimpse of the stands, and wondered: Why aren’t more people there?

Empty seats have been an intermittent feature of the tournament’s early stages. Fans have filled 71% of listed stadium capacities thus far (and only 64% through the first six games). All involved have touted Copa América as a competition on par with the European Championships, but its optics have stood in stark contrast to the Euros, where stadiums are invariably full.

The simple question is: Why?

The not-so-simple answer is multifold.

It touches on ticket prices and marketing, but also on broader macroeconomics, on geography, on urban planning and public transportation and, arguably most of all, the sheer size of stadiums.

Through one round of group play, the 2024 Copa América is averaging 51,592 fans per game, which is actually more than Euro 2024’s average attendance of 50,990 (through 28 group games; through only the first round of games, the Euros were at 53,158).

The simultaneous tournaments look different, though, in part because seven of the 10 German stadiums hosting Euro 2024 seat 40,000-55,000 people; the Copa América, meanwhile, is being played primarily at NFL stadiums that seat 60,000-80,000.

The follow-up question, of course, is: Why hasn’t that extra capacity been put to use?

At the Euros, over 97% of seats have been filled, and more could be filled if stadiums were bigger.

At five of eight Copa América games so far, on the other hand, tens of thousands of seats have been empty.

Two reasons for those divergent outcomes are ticket prices and the uniquely American, oppressively capitalistic, obsession with revenue.

The average price of a Copa América ticket, according to multiple estimates, has been over $200. Even the cheapest seats at many Copa games cost more than $100. As of Tuesday morning, the lower-bowl tickets still available for Argentina-Chile at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey all cost over $500 on the primary market.

The culprit is dynamic pricing, an algorithmic scheme whereby prices fluctuate based on demand, so that sellers and event organizers can maximize their profits.

At the Euros, like elsewhere around the world, prices are fixed. Group-stage tickets ranged from €30 ($32) to €200 ($215) for non-premium seating. (“Prime seats” cost €400.) The range rises to €50-250 for the Round of 16, €60-300 for quarterfinals, and so on.

The approach leaves revenue on the table; demand overwhelms supply. (UEFA, which runs the Euros, said it received over 20 million ticket requests). But it builds and maintains relative goodwill with fans — it’s a reason for the overwhelming demand in the first place. It also helps ensure stadiums are full, which contributes to the spectacle and the overall attractiveness of the tournament.

This, critics say, is what various U.S. soccer entities fail to understand. They see ticket sales primarily and sometimes solely through the lens of revenue. They apparently see little difference between selling 30,000 tickets at $200 per and selling 60,000 tickets at $100 per, despite the medium- and long-term benefits of the latter — the thousands more people who get to soak up the sport; and the millions watching on TV who see a packed stadium, which sends a very different message than a half-empty one: This is a game worth caring about.

CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation, typically controls all ticket sales for the Copa América, like UEFA does for the Euros. But for this 2024 tournament in the U.S., it has turned over sales to individual stadiums and their partners, either Ticketmaster or Seatgeek. None of those entities have any vested interest in growing the sport of soccer. So they have used dynamic pricing, and all involved — from the brokers to the stadiums to CONMEBOL and CONCACAF and even the U.S. Soccer Federation — will get a cut of the winnings, while fans’ wallets bleed.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JUNE 23: Antonee Robinson #5 of the United States heads the ball during the first half against Bolivia at AT&T Stadium on June 23, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Antonee Robinson of the United States heads the ball during the first half against Bolivia at AT&T Stadium on June 23, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF)

Another reason that Copa América venues haven’t filled is that simply getting to them can be expensive.

Even for locals, many NFL stadiums are inaccessible via public transportation — unlike most European soccer grounds. So you have to pay to park. You’ll probably spend obscene amounts on drinks or food. The costs add up.

They’re especially prohibitive, though, for Copa América’s core audience: soccer fans in South America.

All but one Euro 2024 participant is less than 1,000 miles from Germany. In fact, eight of 23 share borders with the host nation. Every South American country, on the other hand, is more than 1,000 miles from every mainland U.S. city. Most are 2,000 miles away from Copa América host cities. Whereas Hungarians can get to Germany for $30, an Argentine eyeing New York would typically have to spend over $1,000 on round-trip airfare.

Oh, and $1,000 to a middle-class Argentine is a lot more than it is to a middle-class American (or Brit, or Dane). The strength of the dollar and the U.S. economy, compared to struggling South American economies, often makes summer vacationing in the States unfeasible. (Obtaining a B2 visitor visa can also be exceedingly difficult, and require a months- or even years-long wait.)

Still, thousands of South Americans have traveled for the 2024 Copa América. Juan Emilio Roa, CONMEBOL’s commercial chief, told Yahoo Sports prior to the tournament that around 25% of match-going fans would be foreigners. Travel agencies offered all-inclusive packages, including tickets that were exempt from the dynamic pricing scheme.

The distance and cost of travel, though — to the U.S. and within it, between the 14 host cities — surely kept many more thousands of fans at home.

The 2024 Copa América’s target in-stadium audience, then, has been an American audience — and especially the diverse and vibrant Latino communities scattered across the U.S.

Latin American diasporas, though, aren’t evenly distributed. There are over 37 million Mexican Americans. There are over 1 million Colombian Americans. But there are fewer than 100,000 Uruguayans and Paraguayans here in the States, according to Census data.

Jun 22, 2024; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Venezuela and Ecuador players stand on the pitch before the game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Venezuela and Ecuador players stand on the pitch before the game at Levi's Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Their national soccer teams also enjoy varying levels of popularity. Demand for tickets, therefore, has varied from game to game. Colombia drew 67,059 in Houston on Monday. Brazil-Costa Rica drew a similar number Monday with 67,158 in attendance at SoFi Stadium in greater Los Angeles. Argentina sold out Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. But when Venezuela and Ecuador met in Santa Clara, California, the Levi’s Stadium stands were mostly barren. Ditto for Uruguay and Panama in Miami.

The most curious attendance figure was the 53,763 for Mexico vs. Jamaica, some 18,000 shy of the capacity at NRG Stadium in Houston. It was likely a function of ticket prices, El Tri’s downswing and fatigue.

In the buildup to this Copa América, several industry sources speculated to Yahoo Sports that organizers were struggling to distinguish this tournament from the rest of a crowded soccer market. Most participating teams regularly play friendlies in the U.S. The six CONCACAF squads have played Gold Cups and Nations League finals. The U.S. and Mexico played a final at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, just three months before the U.S. opened Copa América there against Bolivia.

​​”It is a little bit strange coming back to the same places,” U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams admitted Sunday.

And even to him, as a player who understands the prestige and significance of Copa América, “it doesn't feel quite different [from a Nations League finals] yet,” Adams said.

If it doesn’t feel different to him, does a casual fan understand that it is in fact more significant?

Adams added, though: “Our fans showed out today.” There were 47,873 in the 80,000-seat stadium, many wearing red, white and blue. “And I was happy with that,” he said. He hopes, though, that “we’re gonna have some big games ahead of us,” and those will feel more distinct, with even bigger audiences.