By Sohee Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean fans have snapped up tickets to see high-profile athletes such as Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan at the Asian Games, but overall sales for the multi-sport event are dragging with the opening ceremony just four days away.
Incheon's organizing committee (IAGOC) said on Monday that overall ticket sales had reached 18 percent for the 36 sports as well as the opening and closing ceremonies for the Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 event.
While fans are flocking to grab tickets for rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae and badminton star Lee Yong-dae's events, sales for the football competition were just seven percent and athletics eight percent, IAGOC official Lee Jun-sung told Reuters by telephone.
"We see a huge gap in sales between popular and less-popular sports," Lee said. "Although we are putting all our efforts into selling tickets with lower prices, promotional events, and package deals, it is hard to attract the crowds."
Lee added that external factors such as financial woes and North Korea's decision not to send a cheerleading squad had also had an impact on sales. South Korea is also struggling to come to terms with the Sewol ferry disaster in which 300 passengers, mostly school children, drowned in April.
South Korea's sports culture could also be playing a role in slow ticket sales for non-mainstream sports, Lee said.
"That's the reality. South Korea is not like other developed countries which have advanced sports culture or history of Games," added Lee. "People may think it is a waste of time to see unpopular events."
South Korea have finished second in the medals table behind China at the last four Asian Games and have targeted 90 gold medals in Incheon, west of Seoul.
Sports powerhouse China are certainties to top the medal standings for a ninth straight Games but ticket sales to Chinese fans had so far been disappointing, said overseas media relations manager Lee Cha-ho.
Lee said organizers had signed a contract with Taobao, an affiliate of China's biggest e-commerce company Alibaba, in a bid to sell tickets in China but the deal had failed to deliver.
"We thought there would be large sales via this website but the rate was much lower than expected," Lee told Reuters by telephone. "The problem is that even if the Chinese people buy tickets they still need to go through the visa process to come to South Korea.
"But we are still trying to attract Asian visitors through several promotional events such as giving away K-Pop concert tickets."
(Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)