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Spectators wait for the start of women's water polo action between Canada and Brazil during Pan Am Toronto 2015 at the Atos Markham Centre in Markham.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

With almost half its tickets still unsold just days from the opening ceremonies, Pan Am Games organizers are in the final push in a marketing campaign to ensure stands are full at events.

The priority now is on revving up local interest for the Games. Southern Ontario residents have so far focused their attention on the anticipated traffic chaos and $2.5-billion expense of Pan Am, rather than the athletics.

While organizers are optimistic that they will meet their goal of selling 1.4 million tickets, those in the business of sports ticketing and marketing say the lack of prestige compared with the Olympics means tickets may remain a hard sell.

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One challenge the organizing committee faced since launching ticket sales last September is that they didn't know until recently which countries would be competing against one another in scheduled matches, or which athletes would be attending, said Neala Barton, the senior vice-president of communications for TO2015.

"It's like telling people 'Come to a movie. I can't tell you who's in it or what it's about, but I can tell you it's going to be great.' It can be a bit tough to get people excited about it when you don't have that magic," she said.

Anbritt Stengele sells tickets and travel packages to the most coveted sports events around the world, such as the World Cup, the Olympics, Copa America and the Kentucky Derby, through her Chicago-based sports travel firm Sports Traveler. She didn't know the Pan Am Games were coming up, or that Toronto, less than a two-hour flight to the north, was playing host till a reporter informed her this week.

Olympic organizers build captivating narratives around well-known sprinters, divers and gymnasts who will participate in events, she explained, and for the most part, many of those competitors aren't attending Pan Am.

"I think it's a tough event because the public perception is it attracts less of the famous athletes. Maybe not the Olympic-calibre athletes, although I'm sure there are some that compete there," Ms. Stengele said.

While American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles won't be at Pan Am, nor will swimmer Michael Phelps, TO2015 is attempting to make heroes of locals, including sprinter Andre De Grasse from Markham, Ont.

The organizing committee has provided host municipalities from Caledon to Ajax with at least 7,000 tickets to be distributed to residents. This week, the province purchased 4,500 tickets worth $105,000 to give away to children and youth through a summer-camp program.

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Rather than counting on international visitors filling the stands, Ms. Stengele said, Pan Am will need to encourage strong local attendance.

But interest in events has been weak even closer to home, says Judy Rosastik, who operates a ticket brokerage with her brother. Most of their business is selling tickets to basketball, hockey and baseball games in the GTA, but they have also sold tickets for sporting events south of the border, including the U.S. Open. After Pan Am tickets went on sale, the pair only scooped up a few for soccer matches.

"We didn't do much with it because it is a little scary to invest much money into it," Ms. Rosastik said.

Mixed messaging may be to blame for slow sales. While organizers have tried to entice the public with affordable ticket prices, residents of Southern Ontario have also been discouraged from attending with the implementation of temporary high-occupancy-vehicle lanes that have irked drivers.

But as far as organizers see it, Pan Am is "right on target" with sales, Ms. Barton says. With only three days to go until the opening ceremonies, just under 800,000 tickets have been sold.

A month ago, Paul Williamson, the director of ticketing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, advised Pan Am Games organizers not to blow their marketing money, and to latch onto events such as Canada Day and the FIFA Women's World Cup to promote Pan Am.

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For Canada Day, CIBC, one of Pan Am's major sponsors, held a two-day promotion for discounted tickets. Organizers say it drove the sale of tens of thousands of tickets.

"It doesn't have five rings. It's not the Olympics. But it does have competitive Canadians in a wider range of sports than ever was the case in the Olympics, and I believe that's a real opportunity," Mr. Williamson said.

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