If you go to a sporting event, somewhere between the time when you get situated and when start heading back for home, you look around at the crowd and take it in. Is the crowd electrified for the home team? Has the town turned out in support? How's the attendance?
For clubs across the major sports leagues in North America, attendance is one of – if not the – key revenue streams.
But, it’s more.
Have a bunch of sellouts, and it drives sponsorships. Come up short in the NFL, and you have television blackouts. The number reported in Major League Baseball determines factors as it pertains to revenue-sharing.
In other words, attendance is a big deal.
But, here’s the thing: since attendance has become such a key component for sports leagues, the actual idea that it shows how many people are actually at a game is a fantasy. Here’s some ins and outs of the attendance game based on research by the BizofBaseball.com for Forbes SportsMoney.
Paid Attendance is not “attendance”
If you followed the business of sports, you’ll know that about 20 years ago, the move to count tickets sold, as opposed to turnstile clicks, became what is reported in the boxscores. The reason – wholly done for accounting purposes for the clubs – showed what matters to owners most: money.
In the age of legitimate ticket resale, more emphasis on corporate sales, blocks of premium seating, etc. how many people actually come to the game is not nearly as important as whether there are tickets sold. Sure it matters who goes, but ticket sales, especially in advance, gives cost certainty.
This issue, one might contend, creates revisionist history. Ask yourself: in 20 years when a budding student is taking sports business classes and is asked to say whether the sport was popular or not, don’t you think pointing to published attendance figures will be used to talk of its popularity? In that sense, we can only say how willing consumers, which includes large and small businesses, were willing to purchase tickets, not how many actually attended the live sporting event.
Fudging the numbers
The NFL’s blackout policy has helped drive artificial attendance across the league. Faced with a “sell it out, or it’s blacked out” mandate, those clubs that are near the edge of not being sold out have seen actions that artificially reach sellout numbers.
A great case was last year when restaurateur Russell J. Salvatore made a last-minute purchase of 7,000 to 8,000 tickets so that the season finale for the Buffalo Bills would not be blacked out. Normally, corporations step in, or even the club itself, will purchase tickets, to reach the sellout number. But, clearly, Salvatore was a hero on the last day of the regular season for Bills fans.
The problem is, the NFL will tout how well received the game of football is at stadiums around the country. Those sellout figures drive sponsorship deals.
And, it’s not just the NFL.
The Florida Marlins got into the artificial inflation act by selling tickets to a game already played. The club sold over 3,500 tickets to Roy Halladay’s perfect game when the Phillies visited Florida in June of last season. As noted, because money collected -- even for a game already played -- from this venture counts toward ticket sales revenue, it is subject to Major League Baseball’s revenue sharing rules, which doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re the Marlins. After all, they’ve been one of MLB’s largest benefactors of revenue-sharing, and one of the most profitable.
When is a sellout not a sellout
If you polled 100 fans and asked them what a sellout of a sporting event meant to them, chances are all would say, “Every seat is the house was sold.”
In terms of Major League Baseball, sellout figures are often well below seating capacity.
Case in point, the Cleveland Indians announced last Friday that they reached a sellout for Saturday’s interleague game with the Reds, the first non-Opening Day sellout since May 24, 2008 when they played the Texas Rangers. But, when the numbers came in, you had to scratch your head.
Capacity for Progressive Field is 43,545. The announced attendance was 40,631, or 2,914 short of capacity. Sellout?
In speaking with the Indians, they explained part of the difference by saying their sellout threshold varies, but 41,721 is a good barometer, getting us to 1.090 shy of a sellout, but not to capacity.
Why the difference?
According to the Indians, that threshold was broken with comps related to several factors including rainout exchanges, Club Seat benefit for season ticket holders, group leader tickets, fan appreciation coupons from last Sept, etc.
But, that still doesn’t explain how all the variation. As an MLB source said, "We need to look into this."
As Major League Baseball was quick to point out, if the Indians declare the game a sellout, it means no more tickets can be sold. If you want to say it’s a sellout when it isn’t a sellout, you do so at the determent of the bottom-line.
Still, one could say that after having such a difficult time getting attendance up to the level of what is now baseball’s most winning team, being able to say you sold a game out gets you good PR mileage.
And, each club controls how the threshold is set. For the Angels, it’s 43,500 (ballpark capacity is 45,281). And for the Rays, it’s exactly the seating capacity of Tropicana Field (36,973).
On the Rays… One might consider that if you’re looking for a new ballpark, then showing low sellout numbers actually helps you make your case that you need a new facility.
In fairness to MLB, this isn’t just something they do. You have no idea what real attendance is in other sports where there’s no checks and balances. Asked about the large variations on how clubs determine the sellout figure, Major League Baseball referred to ballpark structure as the reason.
“There are different criteria for different ballparks,” said Patrick Courtney, MLB’s Sr. VP of Media Relations.” Ballparks with a high volume of suites or with larger bleacher, general admission, and/or standing room areas would most likely have the largest variations on a game by game basis in capacity.”
How do you fill a ballpark past 100%?
The Phillies have sold out every home game this season – 19 and counting, thus far. Based on our “when is a sellout not a sellout” if you asked whether the Phillies have been below capacity, the answer is, no. In fact, it’s much more than that.
The Phillies have not only sold out every game, they’ve sold to over 100% of seating capacity? How is this possible?
Standing-room only tickets count toward paid attendance, and with it, the Phillies have sold a bunch, as well as the Red Sox, and the Cubs.
On the Cubs, while they do not officially report whether games have been sold out, they inform The Biz of Baseball and Forbes that unofficially they typically hit standing-room-only stage with a paid crowd in excess of 39,000 or so. Based upon those figures, the Cubs would have 3 games thus far this season above that threshold.
Is it "cooking the books", or creative marketing?
We’ve mentioned how the NFL can creatively benefit from the blackout policy, but there are other methods, as well.
Leagues do all kinds of promotions to get you to go to their games. For baseball, with its 81 home games, the ability to draw fans is paramount.
Any ticket sold, no matter the price, is considered paid attendance. Unlike the NFL, NHL, and NBA, where comps are counted against total attendance, Major League Baseball does not count them.
Still, according to sources, there are tricks to get attendance a bounce, or reach a sellout threshold. As one source mentioned, “In baseball, there are a number of ways to cook the books.” That seems a bit disingenuous. But, there are plenty of creative ways that are used to get numbers up while those getting the tickets aren't paying full price. When it comes to sellouts, free tickets can be good tickets.
Here’s 13 ways ticket sellers and clubs get creative to push up numbers:
- Sell standing-room only tickets first at a reduced rate to reach a sellout threshold before selling seats in the bowl.
- On season tickets, deeply discount tickets, offer “Buy 2 get 2 deals” or offer pay-as-you-go season tickets. Tickets are tickets. Getting you to close the deal is imperative.
- For group tickets, offer 50 to 70 percent off weekday early season.
- Sponsors get tickets. Each team has 50 to 100 sponsors times 4 to 8 tickets each is 200 to 800 potentially paid season ticket buyers.
- On those sellouts, employees get comps. The front offices have 75 to 150 full-time employees plus innumerable number of part-time staff that could potentially "comp out" 300 to 2000 seats a night
- Player coaches and retired player comps.
- Visiting team comps - 4 times 35 players per game whether used or unused.
- Umpire comps - 4 Umps equals 16 tickets per game per Umps contract
- Commissioner’s Initiative - requires each team to donate 50 or 100k tickets per year to lower income charities. While this doesn’t impact paid attendance, it can push the needle up for sellouts.
- Voucher redemption - offer free or virtually free discounted tickets through sponsor store or product
- Team charities – The league sends out thousands of tickets to games to local charities via team, seats sold to charity at pennies so they are sold then written off by team.
- Internet - Similar to groups like Travel Zoo, Groupon, etc. Offer deep discounting on 3rd party website to push inventory
- Military Night – Many are offering free tickets, which is a great gesture as it doesn’t count as paid attendance. But, not all. For example, the Orioles just announced a $3 discount deal off of all tickets for all military (active, retired and reserve) and their families, which bumps up paid attendance.
Is it Right?
If you’re asking whether this is all right or wrong, the answer is, it depends on the point of view. Some are shady, while the ticket seller for a club says, “we’re creative to bring fans in.” Fair enough.
But, when you read the boxscore or hear that a game is sold out, think again. Remember it’s all about the money these days, and what the public sees as attendance figure and the actual number of butts in the seats are assuredly two different things. Don't ever confuse the two.
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Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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David Simmons is a graduate of the University of Central Florida who worked in the front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers over 4 seasons and has a decade of ticketing experience.. He serves as CFO for Players For The Planet and currently resides in Baltimore. You can follow David on Twitter @davidesimmons
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