I should acknowledge that the Nets operation is no different from most others in professional sports, since teams routinely--as per league policy--announce tickets distributed rather than report actual gate count.
Opening day, 2005
On opening day in 2005, the first full season Nets CEO Brett Yormark led the team, however, the Nets made a particular point of announcing a full house, and some media outlets bought it.
The New York Times, in an 11/3/05 article headlined Sellout Crowd Sees the Nets Stumble, reported unskeptically:
Judging by the sellout crowd -- the first for a home opener at Continental Arena since 1997 -- and courtside celebrities that included the rap mogul Jay-Z, a part owner of the team, and Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, it appeared as if Nets fans were willing to stick by their team.
But the arena wasn't full. NetsDaily compiled (though links don't work) several articles questioning the numbers.
Flayed on the 'FAN
Indeed, on WFAN, hosts Mike Francesa and Chris (Mad Dog) Russo flayed Yormark for claiming that 20,098 people filled the arena.
As chronicled on NoLand Grab (though the audio no longer works):
Yormark: “There wasn’t seven-thousand no shows.”
Francesa: “Your announced crowd was 20,098, you said 17, which is a pipedream, I was trying to be charitable at 15. I’ve got other guys who have been in that building a million times who thought, 12 or 13,000 in the building that night — there were so many empty seats it was a joke.”
As the interview went on, Mike and Chris didn’t let up, both telling Yormark, “You totally misled everyone.”
Looking at the numbers
On 11/5/05, Neil Best of Newsday got some figures from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, reporting:
According to a turnstile count supplied to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, 15,504 people attended Wednesday's opener against the Bucks at Continental Airlines Arena.
The Nets made a point that night of announcing they had distributed 20,098 tickets, making it technically a sellout. But many tickets apparently went to corporate sponsors and were unused.
During a heated interview on WFAN on Thursday, CEO Brett Yormark estimated that 17,000 people attended the game and host Mike Francesa insisted there were no more than 15,000 there.
Francesa's "charitable" estimate was more accurate, according to the numbers, which represent a 23 percent reduction in attendance.
In a 5/18/06 article headlined Mythinformation, the San Diego Union-Tribune's Mark Zeigler produced the definitive article on the issue, concluding:
If you believe the announced attendance figures at many pro and college sports events, you might as well believe in unicorns, too
Zeigler makes the cogent point that box scores from sports events are rigorously accurate in reporting statistics from games everybody observes. I'd add that one of the attractions of sports it that games are played in public, and ordinary fans can evaluate performance with their own eyes.
Somewhere in the past few decades, the notion of attendance has been skewed by many teams and leagues to mean something entirely different. Most often it represents total tickets sold or total tickets distributed, no matter if people actually used them - a sort of best-case-scenario projection, the intersection of capitalism and wishful thinking.
At best, it is an innocuous if misleading effort by clubs to drive fan and sponsor interest. At worst, it is a shameless exercise in creative writing.
He notes that the Elias Sports Bureau tracks every statistic imaginable but declines to keep attendance records because, in part, their accuracy can't be verified.
He points out that, in sports terminology, "sellout" only means all available tickets are distributed, including those given away for free, not that the seats are full.
A 23% cut
Zeigler offers a number much like that for the Nets game noted above:
On example: Or the Orlando Magic, which announced an average home crowd of 14,584 last season only for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper to access city records from the TD Waterhouse Center and report the actual turnstile count was 11,830 – an inflation rate of 23 percent.
Actually, an updated account by the Sentinel, on 7/24/07, lifted the inflation rate over 25 percent:
Since the 2002-03 NBA season, the total announced crowd for regular-season Magic games is 25.4 percent above the total Centroplex turnstile count. (Magic officials said they follow NBA regulations for calculating attendance by adding the number of tickets sold to the number of complementary tickets used.)
A sidebar to Zeigler's article explains league policies. The National Basketball Association's policy is among the least transparent.
NFL: The league used to announce tickets distributed, tickets used and no-shows but changed its policy to leave it up to individual teams....
Major League Baseball: The National League announced turnstile counts before combining operations with the American League in the early 1990s. Both now announce tickets sold for revenue-sharing purposes.
NBA: A strict leaguewide policy of announcing tickets distributed, including comps. It refuses to release turnstile counts.
NHL: Announces tickets distributed, but the difference between that and turnstile counts appears to be growing.
Major League Soccer: Claims it announces tickets distributed, although that seems suspicious....
NCAA: Allows each school to determine its own formula for announced attendance....
In the NHL
A 9/26/06 Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel article, headlined NOT WHAT YOU THINK described the leagues' curious policies.
One National Hockey League executive, however, said his team, the Florida Panthers, announces both season tickets sold -- including no-shows -- and only the individual, group and vouchers for complimentary tickets that get used. Behind that rationale is the knowledge that season-ticket holders in the NHL are more loyal than in the NBA.
"If we announced every ticket paid and distributed, that's, in my opinion, a bit misleading," the executive said. "We think this is a more accurate way of reporting attendance. There are going to be no-shows with season tickets, but always the majority are in the building."
His name: Michael Yormark, twin brother of the Nets' Brett--and subject of mutual laudatory profiles. (A commenter on Newsweek describes the Panthers experience as not unlike that at the Izod Center: "Going to the hockey games is like living inside of a non-stop commercial, at least make it worth it.")
Giving away tickets
This season, in an effort to boost attendance, the Nets offered free tickets to the unemployed. The Panthers, as reported in Sports Business Daily, gave out 500 tickets for several games at the clip of two for anyone with a Florida driver’s license.
Michael Yormark candidly explained that “the data is a warm lead” to sell more tickets. And, he added, “You put a warm body in a seat and they buy popcorn and beer, and that benefits you down the line.”
Indeed, as I pointed out, the Nets' generosity did not extend to food vouchers.
Just yesterday, it was announced that the Nets had sold (at, I assume, a deep discount) 100,000 tickets for Saveology.com to distribute to "charities, hospitals, and people in-need... as well as to Saveology.com customers," an effort that at least would provide "warm bodies" to buy popcorn and beer.
NBA the worst
The Sun-Sentinel article quoted Dennis Howard, a business professor who teaches sport finance at the University of Oregon:
He said the no-show rate can range from 12 percent to 20 percent on any given night. It is most striking, he said, in the NBA, where lower bowl seats are sold in large numbers -- sometimes as much as 20 percent to 30 percent of a team's inventory -- to corporations.
As noted, the NBA numbers can exceed 25 percent.
When a team told the truth
In a 4/10/02 article confusingly headlined FALSE ATTENDANCE WON'T HURT MOVE BID; NBA TELLS HORNETS TO RETURN TO ACCURATE REPORTING OF TICKET SALES, the Charlotte Observer reported:
The Hornets acknowledged they have reported the turnstile attendance figures for nine of 10 home games since Feb. 27, making the team's ticket sales seem lower than they really are.
...Coliseum records show that on average this season, the paid attendance through the first 28 games was 36 percent higher than the turnstile numbers. In all of those games, there were at least 2,000 more tickets sold or distributed than fans in the stands.
The Hornets may have been inaccurately reporting ticket sales, but they were accurately reporting actual attendance.
What was the motivation? The owners were trying to convince other team owners that the local market was so bad they'd approve a team move.
(The team soon moved to New Orleans, but the Charlotte Bobcats were established in 2004.)
It used to be worse
The NBA's problem--and policy--dates back to an era arguably worse than the current one. In a 4/9/00 article headlined LEAGUE'S ATTENDANCE PROBLEM IS OUT OF SIGHT, the Boston Globe's Peter May reported on a Hornets game against the Celtics that featured "probably half" the announced attendance and a Pistons-Celtics game where the gate count might have been a little over two-thirds the announced attendance.
The NBA would be in for sticker shock if turnstile count were used for attendance. That ludicrous capacity streak at the United Center would be history (it was equally ludicrous at the Boston Garden).
They can note that the average attendance this season is about the same as it was last year, but that misses the point. The tickets may be sold, but the seats are empty. It's a problem. And it will remain a problem until the product is worth the price. Right now, it isn't even close.
In a 2/1/01 Houston Chronicle article headlined WHETHER A RESULT OF LOW-SCORING GAMES, RISING TICKET PRICES OR LOSING MICHAEL JORDAN, THE NBA IS HAVING A PROBLEM KEEPING FANS IN THE SEATS, Michael Murphy cited a January 2001 game between the Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks in which paid attendance was announced at 11,194, but the crowd was closer to 2000.
At that point, the New Jersey Nets had the lowest attendance in the league, averaging 12,374. The average attendance was 15,185 after Monday's game.
The reasons for the downturn? "[L]ingering aftereffects of the 1998 lockout" plus the "post-Michael Jordan blues," among other things, the Chronicle suggested.
Now, the economy is probably the biggest factor. But the longtime fudging of the numbers sure doesn't build credibility.