Ingram's Flat Spot On: Tickets, tickets

Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Tickets, Tickets Since it's St. Patrick's Day, I'll confess to having kissed the Blarney Stone while visiting Ireland a while back. (It was smooth, cool and not too sweet.) I recall this because there's a bit of...


Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


Tickets, Tickets

Since it's St. Patrick's Day, I'll confess to having kissed the Blarney Stone while visiting Ireland a while back. (It was smooth, cool and not too sweet.) I recall this because there's a bit of blarney these days -- if not always -- when it comes to attendance figures at sporting events.

Not long after the good ol' stars of NASCAR bellowed and wailed through Hampton, a whistle stop just south of town, the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament hit the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta. Having been in the vicinity of both events, I can tell you the crowd counts announced for either event were, um, a bit sweet. Soon Major League Steroid Ball will begin its season and they'll be counting those empty seats as paying customers, too.

A pox on all their less-than-full houses, I say.

In the case of the ACC tournament, where a ticket could be had from a scalper at almost any time during the four days, the actual number of tickets sold -- long in advance -- was used for attendance, a number that defied the empty seats at the spacious Georgia Dome. In baseball, they've been fibbing for centuries using the same method: number of tickets sold, including season ticket holders of the corporate variety, versus actual attendance.

What does it matter if sporting events, where you pays your money and takes your chances, accurately report attendance figures? Well, there's lots of business and money exchanging hands based on the popularity of any given sporting event, where actual fannies in the grandstand and Nielson ratings for television -- or the international equivalent -- are about the only valid coin of the realm.

(Despite the ratings agencies, TV offers a variation on this game. Formula One, for instance, has long been notorious for over-blown viewer numbers.)

Beyond the fiscal consideration when it comes to attendance, there's a sort of temperature taking. Just how is any given sport doing? If not well, then there's a chance for remedial help if the problem is recognized. This assumes the people in charge don't fall for their own promotional hype and keep pretending the naked king has on some beautiful clothes.

And, it assumes, the organizers don't fall for the TV announcers' hype. The TV guys, of course, are paid in-house shills in almost all cases, so they're off the hook as journalists when it comes to crowd estimates. (See Mike Joy's explanation of a ton of empty seats at the Las Vegas Sprint Cup race resulting from people looking for some shade.)

Champ Car, formerly known as CART and now known as defunct, is exhibit A when it comes to a sports franchise declining to recognize flaws in its business plan, starting with an imagined sense of popularity.

This is a particularly painful example, because arguably CART was the best racing series the world has even known. The format was brilliant, but the execution always left something lacking when it came to promotion, because the organizers forgot the fan -- the paying customer -- was their stock in trade.

The case of CART and its later demise in the guise of Champ Car is particularly galling, because print media members helped sustain the image of a king in beautiful clothing who in fact was often standing naked. The print media, which fed out of the hand of CART's owners and administrators, often for the sake of a free meal at a fine restaurant, had no excuse.

It can happen here and now, again.

NASCAR, for example, needs to recognize that once the connection is lost to actually going to the races, the TV connection could soon follow. So those 90,000 fans often disguised as empty seats that a NASCAR official opined were in the stands in Atlanta may soon become empty seats in front of the television. The turnout was in fact depressingly dismal. There was not a soul more than 65,000 people at the Atlanta track a fortnight ago -- half its capacity.

A little background may be in order. As a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution in the early 1990's, I earned a reputation for accurately estimating crowd turnouts at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, counts that PR man Richard Sowers would later tell me were incredibly close after the actual ticket sales were tallied. It wasn't easy, but knowing the total number of seats and the infield capacity in an era of privately-owned tracks was helpful.

The age-old journalistic tactic was often different from my methodology when motor racing was on the upswing. Writers often over-estimated crowds to help get a story above the fold on the sports section front page. And, to curry favor with participants.

Street races are particularly vulnerable to this approach and, recall, that CART had many a street race on its schedule. One well-known, popular facility, to take one example, could barely squeeze 50,000 into its fenced-in perimeter according to one of the event executives. But the morning paper estimated double that figure on race day under a veteran racing writer's by-line.

Road Atlanta, to take a road racing example close to home, was sold four times within the span of ten years and each time the new owner couldn't believe the actual ticket revenue compared to what he saw at the track on race day. In other words, road racing attendance can be legitimately deceiving, because there are not very many permanent seats in use.

This weekend I'm happily headed to a classic event at Sebring -- one of America's all-time great races year-in and year-out. Sorry to say, however, that the crowd estimates are almost invariably over-cooked for the 12-hour sports car race. In reality attendance is comparable to, say, the Daytona 24-hour, now an arch-rival.

Any race promoter worth his salt can eyeball a crowd and make an accurate estimate. Any veteran official of a sanctioning body, which often sets fees according to attendance, can do likewise.

It says here both ought to pay more attention to the reality at hand, rather than competing with stick-and-ball sports franchises for the title of who is handling the economic downturn better by using fake attendance numbers.

I'd prefer to see motor racing come out ahead. The common solution for all involved, promoters and sanctioning bodies: work together to lower the ticket prices instead of counting fans disguised as empty seats. Ticket prices have been too high for centuries, especially in F1, which banked on monopolistic practices until the European Union came along -- and now has moved on to exploiting the Middle East and Far East.

These days it's a sponsor who pays the purse for participants at most events as well as for race promotion. So the myth that ticket prices are high because it's necessary to pay the purse is long since dead.

It may not fill the house, but lower ticket prices are the best route to improving market share in the future -- assuming there is one. Above all, full stands make for good television.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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Series ALMS , Grand-Am , IndyCar , NASCAR