Despite the fact that 97 percent of the available World Cup tickets have been sold, empty seats abound at stadiums across South Africa. The...

Despite the fact that 97 percent of the available World Cup tickets have been sold, empty seats abound at stadiums across South Africa.

The attendance problem is so apparent that earlier this month FIFA, the event’s organizers, launched an investigation into attendance at two matches: Greece vs. South Korea, where 10,000 tickets were unused, and Denmark vs. Holland, where corporate boxes were empty.

A quick look at attendance numbers for first-round matches show a trend: South Africa v. Mexico had 84,000 fans in attendance in a stadium with 94,700 capacity; Japan vs. Cameroon had 31,600 in attendance in a stadium with a 48,000 capacity; and Italy vs. Paraguay had 62,869 fans in a stadium that can seat 69,070.

Although those matches might not have been the most popular among fans (except for the opening match between South African and Mexico), even popular match-ups, like this week’s game between England and Slovenia, have failed to sell out. England beat Slovenia Wednesday, June 23, to advance to the knock-out round, but the Monday before the game, only 4,000 tickets had been sold.

FIFA reps are assuring those concerned that attendance at this World Cup will be the highest since the 1994 World Cup in the United States. According to FIFA, there are on average 850 more fans per game in South Africa than there were at the German World Cup in 2006. Average attendance over the first 11 matches in South Africa was about 5,000 fans higher than during the same period in Germany.

“We’ll probably go over three million (tickets sold) and therefore we’ll be second highest in terms of ticket sales number,” chief organizer Danny Jordaan said during a recent press conference.

Despite touting the number of tickets sold, organizers are still aware of the empty seats. They are blaming everything from the global economic downturn to transport problems to Cape Town weather. Those outside of FIFA are blaming FIFA itself for distributing tickets to its officials and sponsors, only to have them returned unused.

Only half of the estimated foreign visitors are now expected, or about 372,000. Forbes magazine reported that 2 million foreign visitors came to Germany in 2006. Many foreign visitors who were able to buy tickets were simply priced out of South Africa. Newsweek reported that MATCH Services AG, which oversees FIFA’s hospitality packages, ran their hotel prices up so high with surcharges that other hotels in the area also drove their prices up to compete (interesting fact: the CEO of MATCH is the FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s nephew). Faced already with high airfare, many foreign fans chose not to come.

FIFA’s ticketing policy has also contributed to empty seats. Tickets were not readily available to many South African fans, many of whom do not have Internet access. Jordaan has admitted that a better local distribution strategy might have helped fill seats. FIFA only started selling tickets direct to the South African public after worries that attendance would be low and locals were being priced out of attending.

“We should have introduced over-the-counter sales earlier,” Jordaan said on South African radio. “Moving towards Brazil (in 2014) FIFA will have to take that into account, that in developing countries people do not have access to the Internet in the same way they do in developed countries. But I should point out that 50 percent of tickets were still sold to South Africans.”

FIFA has kept tight control over the secondary market, too, which shut out a lot of ticket brokers who could have helped FIFA move tickets. Fans are only allowed to sell unused tickets through FIFA’s officially sanctioned resale Web site. FIFA sells the tickets for a similar value, but it’s unclear how many tickets have been sold in resale, especially when foreign demand is low and many South Africans cannot afford to pay the same price as tourists.