Williams of the US celebrates her victory over Slovenia's Matevzic in Olympic tennis in Athens
Kim Kyung-hoon  /  Reuters
Athletes, such as U.S. tennis star Venus Williams, have been playing before tiny crowds so far in Athens.
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updated 8/19/2004 2:04:52 PM ET 2004-08-19T18:04:52

When Australia's Ian Thorpe beat Michael Phelps of the U.S. in the men's 200 meter freestyle swimming final in Athens the stands were a riot of color, with fans draped in national flags cheering on their heroes.

It was one of the few Olympic events with only a small number of unfilled seats. Many of the rest have been characterized by swathes of empty places, with world-class athletes such as Venus Williams the tennis star performing in front of tiny crowds.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, the Greek Olympic bosses say they are not worried by the empty seats. On the contrary, they point out that the games have already achieved 90 percent of the budgeted revenue from ticket sales.

Most of the tickets sold were the more expensive seats snapped up by corporate customers as much as 12 months before the Olympics. Athoc, the body organizing the games, budgeted on receiving $226 million from ticket sales, representing less than 10 percent of the total operational budget for the games.

Officials say sales are expected to pick up over the next week. The target should be achieved even without discounting tickets, as some observers have urged.

Athoc has been anxious to play down rumors that tickets might be discounted to encourage sales; the body's deal with the International Olympic Committee would rule out discounting. A senior official also dismissed reports that the government would buy 100,000 tickets to distribute to civil servants forced to stay on and work in Athens during the traditional August holiday season. Athoc has all along reckoned on just breaking even on the operational budget of €1.96 billion for the games, through an income made up of sponsorship, broadcast rights, ticket sales and merchandising. The bulk of that income will come from a share of the IOC's revenues from international broadcasting rights and corporate sponsors such as Swatch, Coca-Cola and McDonald's, amounting to €971 million or 49 percent of the budget.

In addition, a group of Greek corporate sponsors paid €248 million to Athoc and the Greek government contributed €235 million. Apart from tickets, the only major item of income in the budget that remains uncertain is merchandising. It is difficult to estimate what the final income from sales of Olympic merchandise will be, but as Athoc was expecting to make only €78 million from this source, even if it disappoints this should not have too much impact on balancing the final operational budget for the games.

The operational budget has been kept separate from the budget for building the infrastructure necessary to hold the games, which the government is hoping will pay for itself over many years. In spite of the negative publicity around the empty seats, Marton Simicek, operations manager of Athoc, pointed out that the number of tickets sold for the Athens games had already matched Barcelona in 1992 and exceeded sales at Seoul in 1988. The average ticket price for these games is about €15 lower than those at Sydney in 2000.

Mr. Simicek says sales of tickets passed the 3 million mark by Tuesday and are projected to reach at least 3.4 million, out of a total of 5.4 million seats. Tickets are selling at a rate of between 40,000 and 50,000 a day, and some of the sports in which Greeks are most likely to be interested are still to come. The football matches so far have been played mainly in smaller regional venues, but next week the final stages will be played in Athens, which is likely to raise interest levels particularly in light of Greece's victory in the Euro 2004 tournament.

The total number of tickets available has deliberately been kept smaller than for the Sydney games in 2000. Greece built sports venues with a smaller capacity than those constructed for Sydney, partly because of the country's lack of a sports tradition and because of possible problems in filling the venues after the games. For Greece, the rows of empty seats are not the financial problem they may appear. But in image terms the damage to the games has already been done. It is embarrassing for the Olympic movement if this great festival of world sport appears to television viewers to be taking place against a backdrop of widespread indifference.

In the age of international satellite broadcasting, the television viewers are much more financially important than visitors to the Olympic events. The broader question of whether the country will be richer or poorer for the games may not be answered for several years.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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