Ticket sales struggle in Pyeongchang, especially for women's events

Spectators watch the downhill portion of the men’s combined at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (The Canadian Press/AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

As of Thursday in PyeongChang, Olympic organizers say they’ve sold 89 per cent of tickets for the events – just shy of their 90 per cent sold goal, which would equate to one million tickets. It’s been a slow grind for the organizers, who up until last week had only sold 74 per cent of tickets, says Ken Hanscom, COO of TicketManager and author of the weekly Olympic blog and newsletter, “Road To PyeongChang.”

“The demand’s not there,” Hanscom told Yahoo Canada. “There’s virtually no secondary market… it’s the second Olympics in a row where there has been very little secondary market.”

A spokesperson for StubHub, one of the most popular online ticket exchanges, echoed Hanscom saying the platform had only seen a few Olympic sales, “and most of it comes from the U.S. from buyers planning their trips far out in advance.”

Photos from events show swaths of empty seats and the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee has reportedly gotten creative in its attempt to fill those seats, offering so-called “passion tickets” to volunteers provided they remove their uniforms, and bussing in school children, according to the New York Times.

Hanscom says the opening ceremony, which started at KRW₩220,000 (around CAD$257) for a seat in the D section and went up toKRW₩1.5 million (CAD$1,755) for section A, still had tickets available.

“Every Olympics is different but we can generally expect the opening ceremony to be one of the hardest to get tickets for,” says the ticketing expert.

Political tensions are partly to blame for the ticket sales disappointment, but Hanscom says that the announcement of a combined North Korea-South Korea team did cause a spike in ticket sales.

“By and large before that, because of the way the ticket sales were, as somebody planning to come to the games you could pretty much choose any event you wanted assuming it was in your budget,” says Hanscom.

Marquee events

While a gold medal is a gold medal, not all events are equal in appeal with certain events having a tendency to draw bigger crowds with ticket prices to match. Both short track speed skating and figure skating are popular sports in South Korea. Tickets for both men and women’s short track started at $175.50 for category C and going up to $643.50 for category A while tickets for figure skating started around $175.50, rising to $936 for the best seats at the gala.

Tickets for snowboarding started around $70 and went up to $210, depending on the seat, but Hanscom says the success of American snowboarder and gold medal winner Chloe Kim, led to a quick buy-up of seats. “(The other day) with Chloe Kim and her parents being Korean immigrants (her event) was widely popular and hard to get tickets for.”

But tickets for other events like cross-country skiing, the biathlon and bobsleigh events were priced at $23 on the low-end.

Prices for every remaining cross-country skiing event, both men’s and women’s, start around CAD$23, although some events have better availability than others. (tickets.pyeongchang2018.com)

“In sports that are not traditionally popular in that host nation, that’s where you see some of the ticket prices come down a little bit,” explains Terry Eddy, assistant professor of sport management at the University of Windsor and a member of the Ontario Sport Management Collective. The key is to balance generating revenue with ensuring people in the host country are going to be able to afford to attend events.

“But as far as I can tell with the Olympics when they’re released that’s the price – if you have some external factor, that’s part of the game, you just have to deal with that,” he adds.

The elephant on the ice

“Dealing with it” is the approach the Olympics had to take when the NHL announced it wouldn’t be participating in PyeongChang. The hockey events, which aside from the opening and closing ceremonies, tend to have the highest ticket prices starting at $23 for the early, preliminary rounds, and going up to $409.50 for the women’s gold medal game and $1,053 for the men’s gold medal game.

Comparison of prices and availability for tickets to Women’s gold medal hockey game and Men’s gold medal hockey game. (tickets.pyeongchang2018.com)

The NHL’s move highlighted the disparity between men and women ticket prices, with Olympic organizers often pricing men’s events more due to a perceived higher demand.

“However without NHL players in attendance this year I’m not sure you can make that argument… in the past perhaps,” says Hayley Wickenheiser, four-time Olympic gold medallist and hockey legend who played for Team Canada since women’s hockey was introduced at the Games in 1998, before retiring last January.

Wickenheiser, who’s at the games in PyeongChang, points out that the discrepancy isn’t just in the ticket price.

“The men’s side also wins prize money for placing (while) the women’s side does not… that should change,” she says. “But that is driven by television revenues and ticket sales and the women’s game still does not draw the revenues the men’s game does.”

Perhaps the NHL’s pull-out will give women’s hockey a chance to steal the spotlight, says Julie Stevens, author of Too Many Men on the Ice: Women’s Hockey in North America and an associate professor of sport management at Brock University.

“At the end of the day, a gold medal is just as valuable in any sport as the other men’s or women’s event,” she says. “The IOC looks at the marquee events where it generates revenue, primarily through broadcasts dollars not always through gate receipts, and view it to predominantly be those sports for the men’s side.”

But the energy currently in PyeongChang is a vote of confidence, adds Wickenheiser.

“(The women’s Korean team) got their first goal yesterday and the roof was blown off, it is a very exciting time for Koreans in general, she says. “The Olympics is the holy grail, it is where the most interest and excitement lies and where we see the largest increase in attendance and registration post-Olympics as well – it’s absolutely key to the growth in the sport until the day comes where pro women’s hockey is regularly on TV.”

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