Brazil's Latest Headache: Ticket Sales Lag For Rio Olympics : Parallels The Summer Games open Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro, but the country's many problems seem to be turning off ticket buyers in Brazil and abroad.
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Brazil's Latest Headache: Ticket Sales Lag For Rio Olympics

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Brazil's Latest Headache: Ticket Sales Lag For Rio Olympics

Brazil's Latest Headache: Ticket Sales Lag For Rio Olympics

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Brazil, the finishing touches are being put on Olympic venues to make them ready for their August 5 debut. But Brazil has some other things going on - recession, political chaos, high crime and the spreading Zika virus. So there may be a lot of open seats in those new venues when the games roll around. Catherine Osborn reports from Rio.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: If the Olympus were held today, the bleachers would be very empty. Only about 50 percent of Olympic tickets and 15 percent of Paralympic tickets have been sold. That's under half of what London had sold at this point before its 2012 Olympics.

At an event at Rio's revamped Gloria Marina last week where Olympic sailing will take place, Brazil's new sports minister, Ricardo Leyser, suggested some of the options being considered for filling the stands.

RICARDO LEYSER: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: He says the government is thinking of buying tickets to the Paralympics for public school children because sales are slow.

LEYSER: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: He argued, improbably, that the slow domestic sales may partially be due to the fact that Brazilians were unaware that they could attend. But Brazilians say other factors are actually at play. At a supermarket in Rio's Catete neighborhood, manager Jailson Galdino is putting new price stickers on the shelves.

JAILSON GALDINO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "Prices are going up," he says. "Every day I have to adjust the prices of food." Galdino says he's not planning on buying an Olympic ticket.

GALDINO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "It's too expensive," he says. I asked him if he was excited about the games.

GALDINO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "What's really impressive about the games," he responds, "is the shameless spending on public money on something that doesn't leave much for the future."

The games were awarded to Brazil seven years ago when the country had a booming economy and was politically stable. Today its president faces impeachment. Inflation is soaring, and people are losing their jobs, so they don't have a lot of disposable income to spend on tickets for sports they may not even be interested in. Also, right next to where the sports minister was speaking, Styrofoam cups and pieces of shoes bobbed in the water, a visible symbol of what many Brazilians say are misplaced priorities.

More worryingly for organizers, international ticket sales have also been weak. Blame Zika. The mosquito-borne virus has been tied to birth defects in newborns, and health authorities have advised pregnant women not to go to the games. All this may mean that Brazil is stuck with a lot of venues and little to show for it.

Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist studied ticket sales when he wrote a book about the economic impact of hosting mega sporting events. In an interview over Skype, he said over the last several decades, there might be two or three cases where a city can say it may have gained something.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: In the other cases, the amount of money that's spent in order to build the venues and build the infrastructure and to operate the games far exceeds any revenue that they brought in either in the short run or in the long run.

OSBORN: Zimbalist says there is a feel-good effect of hosting the games, but it's short and hard to measure. It's that feel-good effect that sports minister Leyser is banking on to get Brazilians excited about the games - that and a new advertising campaign squarely aimed at ticket sales.

LEYSER: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: He says he thinks Brazilians will buy lots of tickets at the last minute. It's the Brazilian way, he says. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborne in Rio de Janeiro.

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