Butts in Seats

Why actual attendance is crucial in funding facility improvements.



The University of Memphis opened the 2011 football season at home against Mississippi State before an "announced" crowd of 33,990 and ended the home season against Marshall in front of an announced crowd of 15,101 in 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The actual numbers, however, were 26,398 for the opener and 3,301 for the Marshall game.

The most recent AutoZone Liberty Bowl drew an announced 57,000 and an actual 31,578. And the 2011 Southern Heritage Classic announced 43,532 while actual attendance was 26,398. (Pure coincidence that this is the same number as the Tiger opener, according to Memphis Division of Parks director Cindy Buchanan and her assistant, who provided and double-checked the numbers at the Flyer's request.)

According to Buchanan, total attendance for the eight games at the stadium last year was 120,300, compared to the sum of the "announced" attendance of 221,002 by the stadium's three tenants.

It is common knowledge that announced attendance, which includes tickets sold and distributed but not necessarily used, is often inflated. It is also common practice among colleges and professional teams and the media outlets that follow them. What is not so clearly known is the gap between reporting and reality. It's a downer, and it does not endear reporters to the people and organizations they must report on.

The gap is especially relevant now in reference to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Tenants and boosters say the stadium needs an upgrade, and the Memphis City Council and city taxpayers may be asked to shoulder some of the costs, estimated at several million dollars. The tenants have told Councilman Reid Hedgepeth that they will bear at least half of the costs of the upgrades and are aware of the city's financial predicament, but a tenant meeting scheduled for Monday was postponed.

On March 20th, the city council must decide how much public support should be pledged to upgrading the stadium. Hedgepeth said the tenants would provide specific numbers then. Actual attendance should be among them.

Here are the numbers Buchanan provided for each game: AutoZone Liberty Bowl, 31,578; Southern Heritage Classic, 26,398; Mississippi State, 26,398; Austin Peay, 9,198; SMU, 9,208; East Carolina, 7,128; UAB, 7,127; Marshall, 3,301.

It looks like Memphis is going to hold a swap mart of its assets including Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, AutoZone Park, and certain public schools. It has been suggested that the University of Memphis take over the stadium and that the city take over AutoZone Park. In that case, it's important to know real attendance numbers to arrive at a fair valuation. In the private sector, no company would take over a competitor without determining its actual sales and expenses as opposed to its projections.

College football games are an important part of the local sports scene and, even at the low number, bring thousands of out-of-towners to Memphis and help put paying customers in hotels and restaurants. But a ticket that is distributed but unused, although it inflates "announced attendance" to the benefit of promoters, does not contribute to the stadium ambience, concession sales, or parking revenue. And the city gets a share of the latter two.

One way to pay for the stadium improvements would be through user fees — a ticket surcharge of, say, $2. In that case, we could be in for an interesting discussion of what exactly constitutes a "user."

Is it the end user — the fan who walks through the stadium turnstile? Or is it the organization or institution that announces the inflated attendance figure? Or the college that buys 10,000 tickets for a bowl game but cannot sell all of them?

A similar question can be asked about the Memphis Redbirds and AutoZone Park, the finest and most expensive stadium in minor-league baseball. With a seating capacity of approximately 14,000, Redbirds tickets are easy to score, and a cheap ticket gives the bearer the freedom to move into seats that would cost four times as much at a big-league game. Pricing power has collapsed since the newness of the ballpark wore off. Whether that's a good deal for the owner or owners is another matter.

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