The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United F.C. publicly reported that more than 70,000 fans attended 16 home game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2018, but gate attendance records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) show the teams failed to clear that benchmark a single time. The Falcons announced an average attendance of 72,898 fans across their 8 home games last season, but the “actual attendance verification” figures submitted by the team show it scanned nearly 9,000 fewer tickets/game (64,022); United FC was slightly more transparent with their attendance claims, posting an average just 6,000 fans greater (53,002) than the actual number passing through the stadium turnstiles (47,123). The records obtained from the state agency also indicated variances in the attendance figures announced for a pair of high-profile college football games played at the venue; the 2018 SEC Championship game (77,141 vs. 69,614) and 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (68,413 vs. 74,006). The SEC explained that it counts all tickets distributed + “credentialed VIPs, participating team bands and credentialed media” in their announced attendance figures.
Howie Long-Short: The discrepancies found by the AJC stem from the leagues’ (NFL & MLS) use of “tickets distributed” – as opposed to “tickets scanned” – as its method of measuring official game attendance. The marketing ploy enables teams within those leagues to announce inflated attendance figures as tickets issued on a complimentary basis – regardless of if they’re used (i.e. tickets scanned) – are counted in the total (complimentary seats issued + tickets sold = tickets distributed).
Teams don’t just give away every unsold seat though, because as Russell Scibetti, President of KORE Planning and Insights, told me “too many comps can actually be worse than unsold tickets. Comping seats devalues the ticket itself. The more comps that get out, the more ways people can get free tickets and the less likely they are to buy – even at a discount. Teams no longer paper the building just to get a show rate because that tactic does far too much damage to any future sales.”
NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS franchises are putting forth the attendance figures that make them look the strongest (MLB requires that teams announce the number of tickets sold), but they’re not using that incorrect data to measure internal KPIs. Russell said, “for logistical and operational purposes – like how much staffing is needed at the venue, how many items they plan to give away or to calculate customer show rates – teams are using the real scan counts.” That data isn’t necessarily 100% accurate though. “There’s always going to be some variance between the attendance figures tracked and the number of people in the building. Every team has had issues with scanners getting disconnected, which throws off their counts. There are people coming in early for pregame hospitality and others that are on credentials – rather than tickets – that are not being counted.”
Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with what either club is doing. As Falcons CEO Rich McKay noted, “the league doesn’t ask us for the other number”, but it bares wondering why marketers/sponsors don’t demand accurate information; how can they accurately measure ROI if the benchmark data they’re getting is inaccurate? Russell said there is no reason to assume they’re working off the announced numbers, “teams could very likely be sharing their internal metrics with their partners.”
Fan Marino: The Falcons claim that they averaged 73,000 fans/game last season is laughable when you consider that the team drew less than 62,500 fans for half the home games – including the home finale which was attended by just 56,470 people (announced at 72,000+). Does this look like a sold-out building?
United F.C. didn’t draw 50,000+ fans/game, but no team in the league scanned more duckets than Atlanta did last season (901,000) and the 47,321 that the team did average was still nearly 21,000 more than any MLS team (besides Seattle, 40,641) even distributed. United F.C. also set a league record for game attendance when 69,004 attended (over 73,000 distributed) the MLS Cup game between United FC and Portland Timbers back in December.
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