Liz Vision

Olympic Sponsors May Be to Blame for Empty Seats

When I say I was on the ground four minutes before I started hearing the business gossip, that in and of itself may even be an understatement.

It was all smiles and “sleep suits” (aka pajamas) on my Virgin Atlantic flight last night, but the moment my feet hit terra firma at London’s Heathrow Airport and I laid eyes on the Accenture (NYSE:ACN) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) curtains swathing the walk to Customs, both my phones started ringing with word of empty seats — GREAT SEATS! — at nearly all of the most popular venues.

Word is some 500 seats were empty as U.S. rivals Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte took to the water on Saturday. The first session of men’s basketball had a huge chunk of lower-tier (read: best) seats go unfilled. And I’m sorry, isn’t gymnastics supposed to be one of the hottest tickets? Two major chunks of seats may as well have had crickets sitting in them. Not the players, but the insects. Chirp. Chirp.

Who’s to blame? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Olympic stars but in our sponsors, say critics. The International Olympic Committee has 11 top sponsors who pay big bucks for the rights to slap their logos everywhere.

That, these companies believe, translates directly to millions in sales. Heck, Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), a USOC sponsor, is saying it believes its affiliation this year will rake in half a billion dollars directly attributable to the glow the Olympics will bestow on its products. The biggest sponsors get handed sheaths of tickets to distribute any way they please. You can bet most go to their top clients. Think of it as a corporate palm-greasing.

There is nothing wrong with this. Until, of course, the clients don’t show up.

Right now, as I peck this out at our Sports studios in the London borough of Stratford, there is an investigation under way by the London 2012 organizers into which companies owned the empty seats and why the recipients didn’t show up.

Top IOC sponsors, including Samsung, McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), Coca-Cola, Acer, Visa (NYSE:V), Panasonic and Omega, may have some “esplaining” to do. We’re hearing Olympic organizers are even considering a 30-minute rule. If the seat remains empty 30 minutes into an event, it’ll be given away to a hopefully appreciative recipient.

Lord Sebastian Coe, who heads up the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, better come up with something soon, other than his quick defense of the sponsors or his Band-Aid solution of filling empty seats with military personnel and students.

Either way, some real Olympic veterans are rolling their eyes about the controversy. I ran into six-time gold medalist and analyst Amy Van Dyken in the green room. Van Dyken, who won her first gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, said, “Of course it’s the sponsors’ clients not showing up, but this always happens.”

Van Dyken said that, for some reason, critics are picking out issues this Olympic year that have been around forever.

“Everyone’s freaking out that Michael Phelps didn’t show up for opening ceremonies. Guess what? Swimmers never march in the ceremony. We swim the next morning. We all go to sleep. I never went to one opening ceremony.”

Liz Claman anchors Countdown to the Closing Bell which is presented from 3-4pm EST as well as co-anchors After the Bell from 4-5pm EST. Click here for more information on Liz Claman