Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do Attendance Figures Mean Anything?

I'm sure a lot of detractors both on Rebkell (and detractors of the WNBA in general) might think that the title should be "Do WNBA attendance figures mean anything?"

Those people would be wrong.

On the Rebkell message boards, a thread is kept detailing WNBA attendance on a week-per-week basis. Generally, these figures look pretty good. Attendance appears to be up from the year before, based on numbers.

Then, someone chimes in. "Those attendance figures are just wrong! If we had 8,000 in our last game, I sure didn't see them! The WNBA is in severe financial trouble!" Prophesies of imminent doom follow.

In an earlier thread, I had asked whether or not WNBA teams should move to the financial model of community-owned teams, like that of the Green Bay Packers. Experts on the issue informed me that that could never happen in modern sports, because if a WNBA team was community-owned, it would be acting as a corporation and be forced to open its financial books to the community public No other WNBA team would want that to happen. This is why you don't see community-based ownership in Major League Baseball, the NBA, or the NFL. (The exception is Green Bay, which is grandfathered in and is the only exception.) It's actually forbidden in the league constitution.

The point is that if a team doesn't have to open its books to the public, it can claim whatever attendance it wants to. If my hypothesis was true - if WNBA teams were truly cooking the books - I wanted to see if this was just limited to the WNBA, or if other leagues did the same. I remember going to Florida Marlins games a few years ago and hearing attendance figures announced that were -- dubious, to say the least.

I found a few articles detailing the problem, but sadly, they are in cached form. The linked article is from the Los Angeles Times.

It appears that every single league is known to "cook the books" when it comes to attendance. I've even read threads of Major League Soccer teams cooking the books.

What do I mean by "cooking the books"? I mean that teams count season tickets, number of tickets distruted, complementary tickets, and all sorts of categories where a ticket might be sold, but not used. Sometimes luxury suites which sit empty are counted into the measure.

At one time, the National League actually measured attendance by turnstile, but once they gave up their independent league office and both leagues shared the same office, they went by attendance by ticket distributed -- because that's what the American League was doing and because revenue sharing would be contingent on this number.

The example the article gave had at worst 40 percent of attendance to one baseball game be the kind of attendance disguised as empty seats. In my personal opinion, this makes baseball attendance pretty figures pretty much wishful thinking. I remember a virtually empty Marlins-Nationals game last year that had over 10,000 in announced attendance. (I also remember a joke about a horrid Cleveland Indians team in the 1980s - "if the fans in attendance ran out onto the field," said one player, "I give us a good chance of defending ourselves.")

So what is the true attendance at WNBA games? Who knows what it is? I go to Atlanta Dream games and the attendance seems pretty good. I watch Washington Mystics games on TV and see masses of empty seats and figure, "Washington's attendance figures can't be right." Your guess is as good as mine.

Until fans do something like the National Park Service used to do in estimating attendance for Million Man Marches and such - until we actually sit down and count heads - WNBA attendance figures will remain a mystery.

However, they won't be the only league with attendance figures based more on imagination than attendance. So when someone talks about the fact that (insert league name) here is better than the WNBA, and uses attendance figures as a crutch, you can kick the crutches out from beneath him.


Q said...

I've always thought that attendance numbers are somewhat meaningless without some context -- how many were giveaways? Are people coming to see bad teams to support them or to see a good opponent/player? What does a growing league need per game to break even (I like how the WPS has put out that their target is 5000/gm which is an attainable goal)?

However, I'm not sure why people worry so much about the discrepancy between tickets sold and seats used. In order to survive, the league needs revenue, not accurate attendance numbers. If a team has experienced an increase in revenue and season ticket sales, that's noteworthy, especially when they're losing.

Of course, the issue with the Mystics, for example, is sustainability -- they're not good, so that revenue figures to taper off without a strong end-of-season showing. But most people in sports seem to know that it's about season-ticket sales and lux box sales. Keep those up and even a losing team can break even...and there are plenty of examples of that in pro sports.

Anonymous said...

Dream has been averaging much better actual turnstile as percentage of total than many teams - which is a good sign for when they start winning more games! Detroit is the worst offender - they announce huge numbers with an empty building. For most sports teams about 75%-80% of announced should be there if the team is decent (Dream is definitely above that as are some other W teams but not all).