The Gay Games are struggling to register participants for the split-city events in Hong Kong and Guadalajara, Mexico, this November, a situation one source felt was a “potential catastrophe.”

In addition, the political situation in Hong Kong, and the U.S. State Department warning Americans about traveling to Guadalajara, add two more hurdles to getting people signed up for the Games, which have been held every four years since 1982, but were pushed back one year due to the pandemic.

Outsports has learned that only about 1,200 paid registrants — as of last week 780 in Guadalajara and 433 in Hong Kong — have so far signed up to participate in the two cities’ Gay Games this November.

A new report by the Hong Kong Free Press said Hong Kong registration numbers are currently 90% below target.

These 2023 registration numbers are alarming. The future of the Gay Games may now hinge on what happens over the next six months.

Comparatively, the Gay Games in Paris had 4,000 registrants 10 months ahead of those Games in 2018. Since 1984, every Gay Games has claimed to include at least 8,000 participants.

One difference? Registration for the two 2023 events has opened only in the last seven months, a seeming miscalculation that is now having serious repercussions. Yet the late start gives some people, like FGG co-chair Sean Fitzgerald, hope that the numbers can increase.

“The marketing efforts have just begun,” Fitzgerald said. “We just sent out our individual sports mailers to past participants in the last week. We’re hoping to see an uptick in registrations from that.”

Fitzgerald pointed to increased registration in the months ahead of the 2018 Paris Gay Games, even up to 1,000 people in a month he said. He hopes that ramped-up marketing efforts in the coming months will have a similar result.

Yet over the course of a month from late March to late April — according to information provided to Outsports by the Federation of Gay Games — a little over 200 new participants registered between the two events.

Also, various LGBT sports organizations have — for the first time in decades — chosen to host their championships in other locations. This includes IGLA, which hosts water polo, swimming and diving, as well as soccer, hosted by the IGLFA.

The athletes from those sports generally account for around 15% of the athletes at a Gay Games.

While these sports are being held at the 2023 Gay Games, the withholding of these organizations’ championships is a big loss.

In 2017, the Outgames — dubbed a rival to the quadrennial Gay Games — drew only about 2,000 registrants for their Miami-based event before canceling the entire week just hours before it started. That killed the Outgames.

While the Gay Games have a much more robust history and track record than the Outgames, some people are hitting the “panic button” for the 2023 Gay Games. And beyond.

Questions about moving the Gay Games from Hong Kong started years ago

The selection of Hong Kong as the host of this year’s Gay Games was, even at the time of selection in 2017, a risk for the future of the event.

At the 2018 Games, chatter amongst various people in and around the Federation of Gay Games and other leaders questioned reconsidering the selection. Hong Kong was, even then, one of the most expensive cities in the world and part of China, with its glaring human-rights violations.

The Gay Games had over the previous years benefitted from being hosted in cities where Americans and Europeans — who historically make up the vast majority of participants — wanted to travel: Sydney, San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam.

The Games’ participation numbers faltered when the host city was somewhere people didn’t put on their must-do list, like Cleveland. Even the beautiful city of Cologne — not well-known to Americans — saw a 20% drop in participation from the previous Games despite hosting a fantastic Gay Games.

Gay Games founder Tom Waddell, who created the Gay Games and participated in the first iteration in San Francisco in 1982.

There was never any clamoring from Americans and Europeans to go to Hong Kong. To be sure, that shouldn’t be the only — or even most important — factor. But a factor it is.

Still, some people have clung to hope. The Gay Games claims to be a force for change, and some believe they can help usher in a new period of LGBTQ acceptance in the world’s most-populous nation.

While noble, believing that this event could in any way change the course for a Chinese population built on centuries of culture that numbers in the billions of people — and with a repressive national media — has seemed naive.

When the FGG voted to host these Games in Hong Kong there were two other options: Washington, D.C. and Guadalajara. If either of those cities had been originally selected, the Gay Games would not be in the potentially existential crisis in which they now find themselves, complicated by a worldwide pandemic that originated in China and (predictably) human-rights violations.

After the COVID pandemic began and widespread Chinese human rights issues were front-and-center, various people in the organization quietly began talking about moving the Games from Hong Kong. Yet one source told Outsports that the idea never gained traction and never came up for a vote.

Inherent problems with hosts Hong Kong and Guadalajara

When choosing a location for an LGBTQ event, organizers must take into consideration how the community is treated by local laws and law enforcement, as well as other human-rights issues.

Hong Kong posed a problem from the first vote. While China had publicly talked about a two-state recognition of the city-state, it was clear even five years ago that the communist regime had set its eyes on cracking down in Hong Kong.

When the COVID pandemic hit, hosting a multi-national event in any location in China — where the disease originated — became bleak.

The solution? A two-city approach to the 2023 Games. As Guadalajara had previously bid to host the Games, that city was chosen as a second host.

Yet the Mexico state of Jalisco is listed by the US Department of State as “Reconsider travel,” with clear warnings about the dangers of traveling there, including “homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery.”

Guadalajara is specifically cited:

“In Guadalajara, territorial battles between criminal groups take place in tourist areas. Shooting incidents between criminal groups have injured or killed innocent bystanders. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.”

The US State Department isn’t the final word in any of this, of course. Yet choosing a second location with that kind of designation is, at best, questionable.

The shifting landscape of LGBT sports leagues and events

Over the last decade, the landscape of LGBT sports leagues and events has dramatically changed.

There are now teams and leagues in places like Texas and Alabama, where anti-LGBT sentiment is higher than various other places in the United States. There are LGBT leagues in football, soccer, basketball and other sports long held to be resistant to gay men participating.

Maybe most importantly, also emerging over the last few years is the Sin City Classic, an annual event that draws about 10,000 participants that has changed how people look at large-scale, multi-sport LGBTQ events.

When Dr. Tom Waddell — a gay Olympian — created the Gay Games and hosted the first incarnation in 1982, it was a revelation. LGBT athletes convening to jump, kick, run and swim their way to a gold medal? It was revolutionary.

Over the years, the Gay Games have held an important place in history, bringing the idea of LGBT men and women competing with one another to cities like New York, Sydney, Cologne and Paris.

Former NFL player Esera Tuaolo played on Team Outsports in flag football at the 2006 Gay Games, winning gold.

Yet the model has failed to evolve. As sports leagues and tournaments for LGBT people have popped up around the globe, the Gay Games have clung to their Olympic-inspired model.

One of the seemingly insurmountable issues facing the Gay Games is the price tag for each participant.

While the Sin City Classic is able to mount a long-weekend event for over a dozen sports, the Gay Games is at least double the length, over the course of more than a week. Those extra days mean more nights in a hotel room, more meals, more vacation days from work. The Sin City Classic is also in relatively inexpensive Las Vegas, whereas the Gay Games gravitate toward some of the most expensive cities in the world like New York, Paris and Hong Kong.

Plus, the registration fees are considerably higher. In part because the Gay Games offer grand opening and closing ceremonies in stadiums or other public places, the cost of doing business is much higher.

An individual American competing in soccer at the Gay Games this year, for example, would pay either a $320 registration fee in Guadalajara, or a $270 fee in Hong Kong. Contrast that with the IGLFA championships in Washington DC and Sydney this year, which were $155 or about $130, respectively.

The registration cost of playing soccer at Sin City? As low as $80 per person.

Will the Gay Games take place this year? And with what sports?

Whether or not the Gay Games will actually happen in Hong Kong or Mexico is a question on the minds of past participants Outsports talked with for this story.

Fitzgerald was adamant: The two events will take place.

“There will be events in both cities this November,” he said. “We had contingency calls monthly since before COVID. And we’ve already passed their go/no-go date.”

Either way, it seems inevitable that some sports will be canceled in Hong Kong and Guadalajara. Some athletes will, over the coming weeks and months, be told their sport isn’t taking place and they no longer have a competition despite their travel plans and vacation requests, or that they will be one of only a couple participants.

“There is still a possibility that some of the team sports will be canceled,” Fitzgerald said. “Before we do that we will speak to the current registrants to see if they want to continue with the current event. That decision will be made before the end of May.”

Outsports spoke with four other city or sports leaders who have all participated in previous Gay Games, most of whom requested to remain anonymous.

“They will have to cancel some sports,” one source predicted.

Fitzgerald said that softball seemed to be the most concerning sport at this time. Tennis, on the other hand, has reportedly some of the strongest registration numbers so far.

All of this will leave a lot of athletes uneasy, as they spend thousands of dollars to travel and register for these quadrennial games that will — barring some unforeseen event — be a shadow of their former self.

Yet still undecided is whether enough LGBTQ athletes will file into the 2023 opening ceremony and compete in their sport to have a meaningful competition.

“Frankly, the whole thing is heartbreaking to those of us who truly appreciate what the Gay Games have meant to ourselves as well as our friends and teammates,” said Team DC Executive Director Brent Minor, whose city had attempted to host these Games. “I hope this can be resolved because it is still very much needed in our world.”

Athletes and coaches will have to make their own decisions on whether to compete at these Gay Games, and which event to attend.

How will this all play out? The future of the Gay Games hinges in part on whether LGBT athletes will venture to China and Mexico, in hopes of advancing equality. Organizers have put athletes in an untenable predicament.

Because if either of these Games is canceled, like the Outgames, the Gay Games could very well become a thing of the past.