The big picture: Guesstimation, fabrication are common formulas
A few months before the 2002 season, Jeffrey Loria sold the Montreal Expos to Major League Baseball and immediately used the proceeds to purchase the Florida Marlins. Neither franchise was particularly popular with fans, and as the '02 season chugged to a close the Expos and Marlins were neck-and-neck in the dubious race for last place in overall attendance.
And Loria wasn't about to finish last, especially not to a team he just unloaded.
After a string of dreadful crowds down the stretch – a 4,836, a 5,105, a 5,148, a 6,103 – the Marlins trailed the Expos by 2,348 entering the final day of the season. The Expos hosted the Cincinnati Reds at Olympic Stadium. The Marlins hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Pro Player Stadium a few hours later.
The Expos game ended at 3:58 p.m. in Montreal and they announced a crowd of 25,178, which seemed a tad high considering it was the third largest of the year and the game had no playoff implications. That gave them 812,045 for the season.
First pitch in South Florida was seven minutes later, and Loria was in a bit of a quandary. There were 6,000 or 7,000, maybe 10,000 if you really squinted, scattered through Pro Player Stadium.
The Marlins game ended, and the box score was distributed to media. Attendance: 28,599.
Season total: 813,118.
There it is at the bottom of the box score, below how many points and rebounds Kobe Bryant had, below how many at-bats and hits Barry Bonds had, below how many power-play opportunities the New Jersey Devils had against the Colorado Avalanche. There it is, way down there, a single capital letter and a long dash:
A box score is theoretically an accurate numerical depiction of a sports contest, with numbers, instead of words or pictures, describing what happened. And for the most part it is. A box score wouldn't say Bryant scored 30 points when he had 27 but a three-pointer rimmed out that should have fallen. It wouldn't say Bonds went 3-for-4 instead of 2-for-4 because a warning-track fly ball would have been a home run if the wind had been blowing out.
Then you get to A–, and all sense of reality goes flying into McCovey Cove.
It is a number that these days often has no bearing on actual attendance, which, if you consult a dictionary (or common sense), is supposed to represent the number of people attending the event.
A glossary of attendance terminology
Turnstile attendance: Also known as the drop count, this is the actual number of spectators at an event. It is usually calculated by turnstiles at the gate, a manual count of ticket stubs or electronic scanners that read a bar code on tickets.
Paid attendance: The number of people physically in attendance holding paid tickets.
Comp tickets: Complimentary or free tickets distributed, often counted in “attendance” figures released by teams. Also known as papering the house.
Tickets distributed: The most common figure released by teams as “attendance.” This includes the turnstile count (number of people actually present) plus unused paid and comp tickets.
Tickets sold: The number of tickets actually sold, not to be confused with the number of purchased tickets actually used or the number of comp tickets.
No-shows: Also known as unused tickets. These are people who held tickets, either paid or complimentary, and did not attend the event.
Sellout: It means all available tickets are distributed, paid and complimentary. “Sellout crowd” is a misnomer, unless every person holding a ticket comes through the turnstiles.
Somewhere in the past few decades, the notion of attendance has been skewed by many teams and leagues to mean something entirely different. Most often it represents total tickets sold or total tickets distributed, no matter if people actually used them – a sort of best-case scenario projection, the intersection of capitalism and wishful thinking.
At best, it is an innocuous if misleading effort by clubs to drive fan and sponsor interest. At worst, it is a shameless exercise in creative writing.
Why announce 5,000 when you can get away with 8,000? Why announce 38,000 when you can say 52,000? Why not just make up an attendance figure if no one is going to call you on it?
A capital letter and a long dash. Next to the obligatory “vote of confidence” for a beleaguered coach (translation: He's getting fired next week), there may no whiter lie in sports.
“Now it's reached the point where you have to lie because everyone else does,” says Kenn Tomasch, a TV sports announcer and former team executive who operates the country's most comprehensive Internet attendance database at www.kenn.com
. “Everything's bigger and better, and if you tell the truth you look smaller and less appealing. Everyone has to lie to keep up with the Joneses.
“Why do they do it? It's like Yogi Berra used to say: If more people would go, more people would go.”
Tomasch, who says he collects attendance numbers the way some people collect stamps, knows how it works. He was part of management for the Indiana Blast, a minor league soccer team.
“I was part of it once,” he says. “We would announce what we could reasonably get away with without going too berserko. I didn't want to laugh at myself. The owner and I would get together during the game and say, 'Within reason, what can we get away with?' The one thing I've learned over the years is that the average American cannot tell you how many people are in a given arena or venue within 1,000.
“And once that number is in the box score and you go on to the next game, it's in the history books. It becomes part of history.”
Except at the Elias Sports Bureau, which tracks every statistic imaginable but declines to keep attendance records because, in part, their accuracy can't be verified. Elias refers people with attendance questions to the leagues themselves, and washes its hands of the matter.
The only league that appears immune from the fudge factor is the NFL, which has achieved such popularity that it can announce the real turnstile number with a straight face. NFL teams don't paper their house with comp tickets, and the margin between tickets sold and tickets used is negligible in most cities.
Major League Baseball announces tickets sold, which is how the Marlins justified 28,599 when there probably weren't 8,599 at Pro Player Stadium on the final day of the 2002 regular season. Midway through the game, Marlins officials later admitted, a friend of Loria's bought 15,000 tickets at the group rate of $1 each, nudging their season total past the Expos.
But most professional and college teams, and nearly all minor league teams, have redefined attendance as tickets distributed, which generally gives them at least a 20 percent bump, and in some cases many times that. The argument is that they shouldn't be penalized in a box score and in the court of public opinion if a ticket holder doesn't show up. That passing off tickets distributed as attendance is merely the “industry standard.”
Complimentary tickets, whether or not they're used? That counts. Huge blocks of tickets that are forced on companies as part of their sponsorship deals and wind up in some exec's desk drawer? That counts. The maximum capacity of a luxury suite even though only the suite's owner and a couple family members might show up? That counts.
Five thousand tickets printed and then dumped in a garbage can? Theoretically, that counts, too.
“It's hard to get under the surface of this,” says Hans Hornstein, a San Diego resident who manages an attendance database for minor league hockey, “because a lot of these teams are private companies and the public doesn't have access to the real numbers. It makes it frustrating for people like me who follow these numbers closely, seeing fewer people in the stands and seeing the numbers stay the same.”
But sometimes the real numbers, and methods, do slip out.
There are the Cincinnati Cyclones, a minor league hockey team that was evicted from U.S. Bank Arena because, the arena's owners claimed, they violated terms of their lease by not properly promoting the sport. The Cyclones announced an average attendance of 3,069 during the 2001-02 season. Court documents filed by the arena indicated an average of 1,473 actually came through the turnstiles.
Or the Orlando Magic, which announced an average home crowd of 14,584 last season only for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper to access city records from the TD Waterhouse Center and report the actual turnstile count was 11,830 – an inflation rate of 23 percent.
Or the grandstand at the Cleveland racetrack hosting a CART event, which the media guide said held 50,000 when it really seated 21,480.
Or there's the Major League Soccer general manager who, as an inside joke, once announced a crowd of 12,345. Or the promoter who routinely puts the date in the final three numbers (if they want to announce 22,000 and it's March 23, he makes it 22,323).
Or this classic from an SDSU assistant athletic director who, when asked for an attendance at a women's volleyball game, shrugged and said he had no idea. Then he looked at his watch and said: “918. That's your attendance.” It was 9:18 p.m.
“I think some teams announce how much they think they can get away with, and then if they get called on it they say it's tickets distributed and hide behind that,” says Tomasch, the attendance guru. “But I think it's kind of a victimless crime. To a certain extent, I don't think fans really care.”
David Carter, a sports marketing expert who teaches at USC's Marshall School of Business, concurs.
“If (teams) didn't think it served a marketing purpose, they wouldn't do it,” Carter says. “It's an industry norm, and maybe there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not convinced that corporate America hasn't picked up on it and isn't aware of it. Fans might be a little irked by it, but in what capacity? I don't know where they're harmed if you say there's 40,000 in the house when there's only 25,000.
“All it means is they get out of the parking lot sooner.”
But why not call it tickets distributed or tickets sold, then? Why insist on calling it attendance when the formal definition is something else?
“Go look up sports in the dictionary,” Carter says, “and tell me if it represents anything close to what it says there.”
“Twenty-seven,” a member of the PR department for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy says.
“Zero, zero, zero,” members of the media finish, in unison.
The Galaxy is announcing another sellout at The Home Depot Center in Carson, its soccer-specific stadium regarded as the sport's jewel in this country. There are entire sections of empty seats in the upper deck. Every third or fourth seat in the sideline sections is unoccupied. The suites are half full. The grassy slope at the stadium's east end is deserted.
27,000. A sellout.
The club's Web site references The Home Depot Center as a “27,000-seat, state-of-the-art soccer stadium,” but the actual seating capacity remains a mystery on par with the Loch Ness monster, a number so closely guarded that most employees don't know it. The state fire marshal's office, after checking its records twice, insists the “fixed seating capacity” is 20,631. A hand count by a reporter one afternoon came up with about 24,500.
The 27,000, it turns out, comes from the contract with Cal State University-Dominguez Hills, on whose land the HDC sits. It is the maximum number of people allowed in the facility for weekend events and thus becomes the maximum crowd the Galaxy can announce.
If it were 37,000, the jokes goes, the Galaxy would announce sellouts of 37,000.
But when you're a young league, trying to earn the respect of a discerning public and the dollars of sponsors in a country that largely has resisted soccer's spread, attendance becomes a vital tool in achieving legitimacy. The 2006 MLS media guide notes that “25 million fans have attended regular season games” in the league's first decade and “a record 2.9 million fans” went last year. Potential sponsors, league officials confirm, receive those numbers as “official attendance.”
Like most leagues, MLS reports tickets distributed as actual attendance. Yet few, if any, leagues have a greater disparity between what is announced and what is actually in the stadium.
Take Giants Stadium, home of the MetroStars, now renamed Red Bull New York. Stadium turnstile counts obtained by the Union-Tribune show on average a 60 percent inflation over the past three seasons from the actual attendance and what the club announced to the media.
Last year, the MetroStars announced an average attendance of 15,077 for 16 home games. The turnstile average: 9,240.
In three home playoff games since 2003, the MetroStars drew an average of 5,466; the club announced an average crowd of 10,494, a 92 percent increase.
There was a similar story at Soldier Field, where the Chicago Fire played last season before moving into a new soccer-specific stadium in the suburb of Bridgeview. In the 13 matches for which Soldier Field officials had turnstile counts, the announced crowd was 70 percent higher than the turnstile average of 7,303.
“(Teams) aren't faking the numbers,” MLS President Mark Abbott says. “We know this from the reports we get from the tickets distributed. It's not happening ... We haven't historically tracked turnstile attendance (for all teams), so it's not a number we have. But we feel confident our 'official attendance' is a fair representation of the number of people who are coming and paying attention to the sport.”
Either way, the turnstile numbers paint a less rosy picture about the league's health. Even if teams are indeed announcing tickets distributed and not faking numbers, it means roughly one in three tickets – and on some days, one in two – aren't being used for MLS games.
Abbott offered several explanations. One is that Giants Stadium and Soldier Field are cavernous NFL stadiums that swallow smaller MLS crowds and may deter the fan looking for a more intimate setting, which is why both teams are moving to soccer-specific facilities in the 20,000-seat range – the Fire this season and Red Bull New York in 2008. Another issue is the tens of thousands of corporate tickets included in sponsorship packages that, Abbott says, “companies may not be able to take advantage of.”
Also skewing MLS attendance figures are doubleheaders, Fourth of July fireworks shows and other special events. Of the league's 35 biggest announced crowds, each of them over 41,000, all but two was a doubleheader with an international match, the Fourth of July or a team's inaugural game.
A doubleheader with the English national team at Giants Stadium drew 42,095 (announced as 50,807) – the overwhelming majority of which skipped the MLS match – and was counted in the MetroStars' 2005 season totals. Subtract it, and the average turnstile attendance was 6,871 in the league's biggest market.
“They're popular and they're a way to promote MLS and professional soccer,” Abbott says of the doubleheaders. “We think they're no different than promotions that other professional sports teams would run, whether it's cap day or bat day. They count those in their attendance, don't they?”
Maybe it was the Buffalo game, when the announced crowd at 30,200-seat Rynearson Stadium was 17,750. Or the Toledo game, when it was 16,061. Or the Idaho game, when it was the biggest yet: 18,920.
The writers at Eastern Michigan University's student paper, the Eastern Echo, had seen enough. They made an open-records request for turnstile counts at football games compiled by the school's ticket management office and wrote about how they were far, far smaller than what the athletic department was announcing. Over the 2004 season, the athletic department's official attendance was 71,937 for five home games; the turnstile counts showed 28,405.
What made things fishier was that the athletic department commissioned a separate turnstile count by members of the baseball team, and the baseball team's numbers – what do you know? – mirrored the announced numbers. When the Echo contacted baseball players for an explanation, they all declined comment.
Even more suspicious: 2004 was the first year the NCAA had enacted a rule (since softened) requiring schools to average 15,000 fans in actual turnstile attendance to maintain Division I-A status for football. Eastern Michigan, when it included a season-ending “home” game played at Ford Field, claimed it averaged just over 16,000.
The actual turnstile counts were closer to 6,000.
Interim university president Craig Willis read the story in the Echo last spring and immediately ordered an investigation.
“Announced or official attendance figures for football and men's basketball,” the report concludes, “are intentionally inflated and have been for years. The degree of inflation at EMU is dramatic – consistently more than double ... This practice is rationalized by the belief that everyone else does it, so therefore we must also do it so as not to be disadvantaged from a public relations/image perspective.”
Because the ticket management office at Eastern Michigan reports to the dean of student affairs and not the athletic department, the athletic department paid the baseball team a $1,500 stipend and armed players with hand clickers to produce the department's own “turnstile” counts it could report to the NCAA.
“Baseball players,” the EMU report says, “were stationed at all locations ... and given instructions to count everyone, even people who came through more than once. There is strong evidence that suggests Athletics management staff, and subsequently baseball players, were told to 'click, click, click,' to get to the targeted numbers.
“Although there is no evidence of a written directive, it is generally understood that the Athletics Director encouraged the practice, set expectations of what the attendance figures would be and in most cases determined the announced attendance after getting information from other staff.”
The report was dated May 1, 2005. Five days earlier, Athletic Director Dave Diles – who had been a candidate for a job opening at several other I-A programs – resigned to become athletic director at Division III Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
The seven-page report also hinted what might happen if EMU came clean and began announcing the real numbers: “If, in fact, the practice of inflating figures is commonplace among schools like Eastern, reporting accurate attendance figures could ... put Eastern Michigan University at a disadvantage unless other institutions are mandated to do the same.”
Last fall, Eastern Michigan's official football attendance was 20,874. Total. That's for four home games, or an average of 5,219.
That ranked last among 117 schools offering Division I-A football.