What’s With The Empty Seats At The African Nations Cup

Guest Post by Marc Fletcher*

One of the key sights of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations has been emptiness. Aside from the opener between South Africa and Cape Verde, the television cameras have picked up images of large swathes of empty seats. Whether it was Burkina Faso’s last gasp equaliser against Nigeria in Nelspruit or Tunisia’s equally late winner versus Algeria in Rustenburg, the empty seats appeared to outnumber the fans that had made the trip. Coverage from previous editions of the tournament in Ghana, Angola and Equatorial Guinea picked up similar images. This is clearly not a South African-only problem.

I had earlier hoped that the more reasonable pricing structure for this tournament as opposed to the 2010 World Cup would have made the games more accessible to majority of poorer, working class football fans; those who make up the vast majority of the support base of South Africa’s domestic clubs. The empty seats suggest that it’s reaching few people in general.

So what are the issues behind this?

Firstly, there aren’t many players in this tournament that can be described as superstars. In the World Cup, there was Messi, Ronaldo and the entire Spanish squad. This time around, there’s Didier Drogba, whose career is winding down in China but few others. Yes, there are players such as Yaya Toure and Asamoah Gyan but they simply do not have the same star status. Why spend hard-earned money to watch two teams that you have little or no interest in?

Secondly, the 5 pm kick off times are hardly conducive to getting bums on seats. As I write this, I have one eye on the Bafana v Angola match. While attendance seems to be significantly greater than in most of the other matches, there are still many empty seats. Traffic at this time in the major cities can be nightmarish and some fans will be unwilling to put themselves through the gridlock and confusion. To make sure that you get to the stadium in plenty of time means taking the afternoon off work.

A big contributory factor is that that there are few, if any African countries that have a large fan base with a large enough disposable income to fly out to the southern tip of the continent for the tournament. Unlike the vast hoards of travelling football tourists at the Euros or at the World Cup, the support of visiting teams is usually restricted to a small rump of die-hard regular fans who are sometimes subsided by the state or political parties. While the commitment on the part of these fans is impressive, this is not going to fill these former World Cup venue. This is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon.

But the thing that strikes me most as I write from Johannesburg is the absence of evidence that the tournament is taking place. In 2010, there were numerous posters around the city, large fan parks with big screens and people blowing vuvuzelas on street corners. Thousands crammed onto the streets in the north of the city when Bafana went on an open-top bus tour while a giant photo of Cristiano Ronaldo was emblazoned on Nelson Mandela Bridge. This time, it is severely underwhelming. There is no party atmosphere, no fan parks, little hype on local television or radio. Bafana shirts are far less apparent on the street in contrast to 2010. It’s not totally absent though. Staff at my local Spar were wearing their Bafana shirts today, while bar staff on Soweto’s tourist strip on Vilikazi Street were doing the same.

Still, it’s as if the tournament has passed Jo’burg by and I wouldn’t be surprised if it passes most of South Africa by with little more than a passing awareness that Africa’s biggest football tournament is in their country. The slogan of the tournament is “The beat at Africa’s feet,” but this beat is strangely subdued.

Maybe people realise that they have more important things to do than watch football?

N.B. During the South Africa vs Angola match, Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban seemed to be fuller in the second half. The commentator on Supersport (the local channel which dominates football broadcasting on the continent) has suggested that there is an excessive number of security cordons, which has delayed many fans from getting into the ground until the latter part of the first half.

* Marc Fletcher, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg, blogs at One Man and His Football: Tales of the Global Game

5 thoughts on “What’s With The Empty Seats At The African Nations Cup

  1. I share and agree with a lot of the sentiment, however, I would say that there are equally as many shots showing the die hard fans and large contingents of said fans (Ethiopia as one example), I know several communities who have hired busses and taken large contingents upcountry to watch various matches (again, Ethiopians being the prime example, but Nigerians too). What is missing are the South African fans to watch other countries matches. And as far as I know we have problems filling small stadiums for local league matches too, so its far beyond Afcon issues… and lastly, there are at least 2 fanparks in Johannesburg, can’t remember where they are located. The thing that bothers me most is that I’m in Cape Town and missing out on any action…

  2. South African fans availing themselves of the opportunity to watch other country is the challenge I am seeing here never and there is always that tendency to wait till after the group stage when the tournament is expected to become more challenging and interesting.

  3. I am not so sure why you have raised this as a novel issue. This has always been the case when we look at all AFCON tournaments. I think we also need to be cognisant of the fact that South Africa was given eight months to stage the tournament. In comparison to the World Cup, South Africa had six years to prepare. These things need to be contextualised…

  4. Emma – There have indeed been many shots of the die-hard fans from many of the countries competing but have you noticed with regards to South Africa, the close up shots will generally be from the same small group of SA soccer supporters? These supporters have become well known within domestic soccer circles and are minor celebrities. Since posting this, I have come across the fan parks but these are the small Township TV ones rather than the three main fans parks from 2010. The atmosphere in 2013 is very subdued.

    Merryl -You could be right. Tournaments usually become more interesting in the knockout stages.

    Madalitso – It’s not a novel issue and as I said, this is not a South Africa-only problem. You’re right to point out the short time in which the organising committee had to turn things around. I shall endeavour to address some of these issues in a later post.

  5. The timing of the tournament doesn’t help. There isn’t a lot of disposable income in January. In South Africa, it’s back to school and varsity after the summer holidays which means new school uniforms and text books etc. It’s also straight after the holiday period when many South Africans celebrate Christmas and a lot of money is spent on socialising and travelling. A lot of locals either go home to family for the holidays or travel elsewhere for a much needed break from the daily grind. In December, people generally spend more than they would in a normal month and to make matters worse, for many people, pay cheques have to stretch 6 weeks until January pay day instead of the usual 4 or 5 weeks. It’s just not a good month financially for people in South Africa.

    I’m sure that more tickets would have been sold had the organisation and marketing of the tournament been better and started much earlier in South Africa. The marketing of the tournament has been EXTREMELY poor. Until very recently, there has been very little hype for the tournament in general and I think that is reflected by the fact that the opening match only sold out 3 days before it kicked off. There were problems with the ticketing due to stadium name disputes over FNB Stadium and I think that the decision to sell the tickets through eQtickets and Spar, rather than Computicket, has also had an impact on sales generally.

    I was in Port Elizabeth (home of Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium which is hosting 8 matches) over Christmas in December and when I left Port Elizabeth on the 5th of January (2 weeks before the tournament kicked off in Johannesburg) there was still no evidence at the PE airport that AFCON 2013 was even happening. In fact, the traffic circles (roundabouts for you Marc) still had the old battered and bruised soccer ball frame sculpture things in the middle of them from the 2010 FIFA World Cup surrounded by the old faded and rusting metal “flags” of the competing nations for the 2010 World Cup. Would it really have killed someone to spruce up what was already there and re-paint the metal “flags” with the flags of the competing nations for AFCON 2013?

    At least Bafana Bafana who are currently ranked 22nd in Africa and 85th in the world (according to the latest FIFA rankings) have done the country proud by qualifying top of their group and making it through to the knock out round. They have already far exceeded the expectations of the vast majority of the public by doing so and it would be absolutely fantastic if they could find a way past Mali in the 2nd round. It won’t be easy. Mali are currently ranked the 3rd best football playing nation in Africa and the 25th best in the world but football is a funny old game and you just never know…

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