Cards' attendance: Tickets sold or fannies in the seats?

News-DemocratApril 11, 2014 

Over the years I have attended a good many Cardinal games, and I always thought I was a good judge of attendance. Boy, was I wrong. Come to find out they report tickets sold, not bodies in seats. Why? -- Charlie Baird

Don't be so hard on yourself. You're probably still a great judge of crowd size, but you really need to brush up on your Business Marketing 101.

Ask yourself this: If you were a team owner trying to put your best face forward to investors, city poobahs and loyal rooters, which would you rather announce: attendance based on people in the stands (say, 23,000) or tickets sold for that particular game (maybe 27,000 or more)?

Silly question, huh? That's what Major League Baseball apparently thinks, according to Joe Ostermeier, the News-Democrat digital editor and chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of Baseball Writers Association of America.

"It was the Major Leagues that came down and said, 'We want everybody announcing their attendance as tickets sold,'" Ostermeier told me. "Now they announce it as attendance, but, in reality, it's tickets sold. I think they just think it sounds better when there's 45,000 people there instead of 39,000, frankly."

You may remember it wasn't always quite that way, says Ostermeier, who has covered the Cardinals as a beat writer and columnist for 30 years. When Ostermeier started, the Redbirds announced both numbers, which could have made you feel better about your talent of estimation. But it's been at least a decade since they've ended that practice.

"I would always make it a point in my stories of announcing the official attendance, which was tickets sold, and the actual attendance," Ostermeier said.

"In fact, it became kind of a running joke in the press box that I would get up from my seat and walk down to the PR director to get the actual attendance. He'd see me coming, and he'd say (in a go-away-you-bother-me-son voice), '39,403,' and I'd turn around and go back. Because I was the only person apparently interested in that topic.

"I just thought it was a more accurate gauge of what was really happening at the ballpark that night. Part of me understands that, OK, somebody's bought that ticket, nobody else can sit there. But the other aspect of that is if it's the San Diego Padres and they're awful and it's raining and 43,000 people have bought tickets and 32,000 show up, I'd like that reflected somehow."

So would other old-timers, who grow weary of the creative ways attendance is figured. The thing is, it's really not new.

"They're trying to fool John Q. Public," Dr. Michael Jackson, director of the graduate sports and recreation administration program at Temple University, told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Rob Biertempfel in 2006.

Biertempfel was writing about a 1938 University of Pittsburgh football game at which the attendance was announced at 75,000 when it was actually 68,918.

"I think it's downright lying," Jackson said. "It's a subliminal message: 'We're having a great time at the game, so you ought to come and join us.' It's part of the strategy. It's perfectly legal and it's accepted. It's the way the game is done."

Even the NCAA has gotten in on the act, Biertempfel pointed out in his column. In 2004, a Division I football program had to have an average turnstile count of 15,000 to retain its Division 1-A status. But in August 2005 they changed that to 15,000 actual attendance or tickets sold once every two years.

Some, however, would argue that any ticket sold shows interest in a game or team. And there's no telling why the no-shows failed to come. Maybe it was disinterest, but maybe it was the flu or a dead battery, so why penalize the team by forcing it to ignore a legitimate ticket sold?

As a result, various leagues and teams have come up with at least four ways to count attendance: the turnstile count; tickets sold; tickets distributed (includes freebies); and total attendance (everyone in the park or arena whether or not they have a ticket).

Meanwhile, you probably can go home happy, feeling you have made a legitimate guess as to the number of actual bodies downing tacos and Bud. Just don't forget to add those people with binoculars at those new venues in Ballpark Village.

Today's trivia

According to a totally unscientific survey, what is the world's favorite number?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: In the past, Frasier Crane and other wine aficionados have estimated that the average flute of champagne produces 15 million bubbles. But in a new report in The Journal of Physical Chemistry B, researcher Gerard Liger-Belair says people haven't taken into account that some carbon dioxide escapes without forming bubbles and the size of the bubbles changes over time. So, taking temperature, bubble dynamics and the tilt of the glass into account, Liger-Belair concluded 1 million is a more reasonable number (if, of course, you can resist drinking it.) Want more bubbles? Serve it warmer than you normally would be sure to tilt the flute when pouring, he says.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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