Sports arena, stadium attendance numbers inflated

Actual and announced crowd stats for major sports events at odds in Metro Vancouver

Announced attendance numbers for Vancouver Whitecaps and BC Lions games at BC Place stadium don’t always match actual attendance, according to data the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC ordered BC Pavilion Corp. to release in March | Chung Chow

The Vancouver Giants aren’t so mighty on the ice or at the gates of the Pacific Coliseum anymore.

Attendance figures at the team’s home games have ownership considering a move to another arena; announced attendance figures released by other major sports teams in the highly competitive Metro Vancouver entertainment market have raised questions over the accuracy of those numbers. 

The 2007 Memorial Cup champion Giants missed the Western Hockey League playoffs for the third time in four seasons. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information from landlord Pacific National Exhibition show the major junior club drew an average 3,332 fans to 36 home games in 2015-16. That’s substantially fewer than the 5,169 the Giants claimed.

Over the last three seasons, the Giants publicly overstated attendance by 205,000. The actual average per-game gate count plummeted by almost 1,000 from 4,269 in 2013-14 to 3,332 in 2015-16.

The only time in the last three seasons the Giants drew in five figures was 10,339 for the last regular-season home game of 2013-14, when unused tickets were honoured. Last season’s biggest crowd of 6,578 came December 18, 2015, for the annual pre-Christmas Teddy Bear Toss benefit, when the club announced 9,170. The Giants drew fewer than 2,000 fans three times and exceeded 5,000 five times last season at the 15,713-capacity, 48-year-old rink.

Giants’ majority owner Ron Toigo said the club policy is to announce tickets sold per game and added that actual totals don’t include those who enter through the pass door or hold tickets to the arena’s 14 suites.

He said he wants to decide by the end of April whether the Giants return for a 16th season in East Vancouver or move to the 5,276-seat Langley Events Centre, which opened in 2009.

Ultimately, he conceded “there were an awful lot of no-shows from season ticket holders” unhappy with the last-place club in the league’s Western Conference.

“If you’re winning every game and challenging for a championship, people go out of their way to try to make it there,” Toigo told Business in Vancouver. “When you’re not that good or not that entertaining, everything becomes a bigger hassle than it really is.”

The Giants are not alone in overstating home game attendance numbers.

At BC Place stadium, the Vancouver Whitecaps and BC Lions also announce tickets distributed. For 55 event dates between September 30, 2011, and July 20, 2013, they claimed a total of 1.3 million attendees. But the actual number of tickets scanned at the gates was 1.1 million, according to data that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC (OIPC)  ordered BC Pavilion Corp. to release in March.

For instance, when the Lions reopened the stadium September 30, 2011, following BC Place’s $512 million renovation, the Canadian Football League club announced a crowd of 50,213, but the number counted was 46,151. Likewise, a 54,313 sellout was announced for the Lions’ 2011 Grey Cup win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The actual attendance was 50,830.

The Whitecaps announced nine crowds of 21,000 and one of 22,500 from October 2, 2011, to July 14, 2013. The latter was actually 20,796 on July 6, 2013, when the Seattle Sounders visited. The other nine matches had varying totals under 21,000, including 17,688 for the October 2, 2011, debut under the new stadium roof.

The Lions and Whitecaps unsuccessfully argued to an adjudicator that the actual attendance figures were trade secrets and disclosure could jeopardize contracts with sponsors. The teams’ joint submission claimed handheld ticket-scanning devices sometimes malfunctioned and some attendees, such as halftime show performers and media, are not counted in the scanned figures.

OIPC adjudicator Celia Francis ruled that the Whitecaps and Lions failed to prove that the release of actual attendance figures could harm their businesses.

In her ruling, Francis wrote: “By the Whitecaps and BC Lions’ own admission, in such situations, ‘it is readily apparent that not all seats are occupied’ and ‘it is obvious to the public that the announced attendance does not purport to be actual attendance.’ If these things are obvious to the public, I conclude that they are also obvious to the sponsors and broadcasters about whom the BC Lions and the Whitecaps expressed concern.”

Prof. Christopher Keshock of the University of South Alabama studied the 2015 Senior Bowl NCAA football game in Mobile, Alabama. He wrote that an accurate attendance figure is an important aspect of event and audience evaluation, but the turnstile count is no guarantee that all who entered paid for admission.

Counts can be skewed by quantities of free tickets for friends and families of players, suites and blocks of tickets for sponsors through their contracts and tickets given to other stakeholders who might enter through a gate where no turnstile count is recorded.

“Exaggerated crowd sizes at an event can be a common practice used in public relations marketing announcements,” said Keshock in his study, “but it compromises event evaluation reliability and overstates economic impact estimates.”