Olympic Pretendinitis?

Anecdotally, in the early days of the Olympics, I’m seeing empty seats in Sochi as I watch, and others are pointing out the same.

Somehow, the BBC is reporting a sales figure of 70% sold overall for the tickets at these games as of two weeks before the start. This compares to the 97% figure that they reported for past games in London and Vancouver at the same point. It’s a tough comparison, because London and Vancouver would have had secondary-market support, much bigger local markets and more structural advantages.

Here’s the thing: If ever there was an organization interested in managing the perception of the popularity of their event, it’s the Russian government. At the Olympics, the perception of the outside world about what’s going on is far, far more important than the actual experience of the people there. That’s probably true more than ever at these games, which cost too much and are set in a place that isn’t even really a winter destination. Prestige, much more than ticket sales, is what’s on the line.

When organizations — as diverse as a sports team, a small theater or a plutocratic government — feel that their power and prestige derive in part from being able to CLAIM that they are totally sold out, it’s tempting to say that even when it’s not true. I call this Pretendinitis. It’s the belief that if I pretend my event is in extreme demand, people will want it more. Has it ever worked? Probably a few times, but as a rule demand needs to have a foundation for the fear of missing out to kick in.

Usually, phony claims of sellouts are about as credible as the mayor of Sochi’s claim that there are no gay people in his town.

The reality of Olympic ticket sales is that they’re diverse. Some will be blockbusters; others will need seat-fillers. We get it. Winter biathlon is a great event, but a tough sell.

So the next time you feel like engaging in a little Pretendinitis-based marketing, picture yourself in an old Soviet-style grey uniform, fooling absolutely no one when you talk about how well you’re doing.

Focus instead on building demand. Give people reasons to go so you’ll actually sell out.

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