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The game of the gates

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, Aug. 14, 2006

On Oct. 29, 1938, fans squeezed into Pitt Stadium to watch the Panthers square off against Fordham. The two powerful teams had played to scoreless ties the previous three years, and the highly anticipated rematch in '38 was witnessed by an announced crowd of 75,000.

More or less.

The actual attendance was 68,918.

"Frank Carver, then the Pitt publicity man, later admitted the (75,000) figure was exaggerated," Pitt sports information director E.J. Borghetti said.

Carver can be forgiven for his fib; he probably was just caught up in the moment. After all, the Panthers won the game, and the crowd of 68,918 was -- and still is -- the largest to witness a sporting event in Pittsburgh.

These days, however, stretching the truth about attendance as Carver did has become a common practice in pro and college sports.

Leaf through this newspaper and pick out any box score. Chances are, the attendance number you'll see does not match the actual number of paying customers who were in the seats during the game.

In an era where baseballs and muscles are juiced to improve performance, attendance figures also receive artificial boosts.

With a little creative accounting, attendance stats can be tweaked to stoke interest among fans, advertisers and sponsors. At the lower levels of collegiate sports, it often is the result of a well-intentioned school official pulling a number out of thin air.

Attendance figures are so fickle, the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statkeeper for every major pro league, refuses to chart them.

What's the big deal about a ... um, slight overestimation•

"They're trying to fool John Q. Public," said Dr. Michael Jackson, director of the graduate sports and recreation administration program at Temple University.

"I think it's downright lying. It's a subliminal message: 'We're having a great time at the game, so you ought to come and join us.' It's part of the strategy. It's perfectly legal and it's accepted. It's the way the game is done.

"If an organization is tweaking the numbers, who's going to hold it accountable• Not the owner. And, usually, not the league. People are forced to do it to keep up with the Joneses."

Not to mention the Steinbrenners, Cubans and Heuzingas.

Different definitions

Most people would define attendance the same way the dictionary does: "the number of persons that are present."

In sports biz lingo, that's called the turnstile count (also known as the drop count) -- the actual number of bodies in the seats.

But when teams announce their "attendance," the figure usually is something other than the turnstile count.

It could be paid attendance (the number of people present who paid for their seats).

It could be tickets sold (regardless of whether or not the fans actually came to the game).

It could be tickets distributed (the drop count, plus freebies and unused paid tickets).

It could be total attendance (everyone in the venue, regardless of whether they have a ticket).

The Pirates, like every other Major League Baseball team, tally the number of tickets sold. The Washington Wild Things, an independent minor-league baseball team, announce paid attendance.

The Steelers, who are free under NFL rules to use any method they want, announce turnstile count. The Penguins, in line with NHL policy, announce tickets distributed.

"When you sell a ticket, technically, you have created revenue," said Dave Synwoka, professor of sports management at Robert Morris University. "Whether or not anyone actually uses that ticket is another matter.

"You could refer to it as 'creative attendance-taking.' It just depends on the way they define it. It's a different way, maybe a better way, of putting a face on it."

Many colleges, from Division I powerhouses to tiny junior-college programs, announce total attendance. They get the most out of that number by counting everyone -- reporters, referees, band members, hot dog vendors, the clean-up crew and even the mascot. If a 20-seat luxury box is sold but only two people show up, it still counts as 20.

Inflated numbers

The NCAA asks its members for year-end attendance numbers for football and basketball. Until last summer, football programs that did not have an average turnstile count of 15,000 at home games could have been stripped of Division I-A status.

However, the NCAA relaxed that rule in August 2005. Now, a college must average 15,000 in either paid or actual attendance for all home games once every two years.

The NCAA allows its member schools to set their own methods for calculating attendance.

"We want to portray the attendance in the best possible light," said Jim Wright, the NCAA's director of statistics. "We don't care if a school lets in 3,000 students for free or if they charge everyone half price. We only care about how many people watched the game."

So it's no surprise that the area's three biggest Division I football programs employ different systems. West Virginia uses the turnstile count. Pitt announces tickets sold. Penn State records tickets distributed.

"We're trying to get as accurate a number as we can for the total number of people in the stadium," said Greg Myford, Penn State associate athletic director for marketing and communications.

Beaver Stadium is the second-largest college venue in the country, with a capacity of 107,282. The Nittany Lions drew crowds of 100,000-plus for five of their seven homes games in 2005 -- including three games with more than 109,000.

Penn State has ranked among the top four in Division I-A football attendance for 15 consecutive years. But keep in mind that its total attendance stats are inflated a bit by pom-pom girls, reporters and the Blue Band.

Myford said Penn State does not track the drop count at Beaver Stadium.

"We do not differentiate between paid and comp (tickets) because the people are in the stadium, regardless of their ticket type," he said.

Pitt plays in 65,000-seat Heinz Field, across town from the Oakland campus. The school includes comp tickets in its count, but excludes media and staff passes, band members and such.

Last year, Pitt drew a standing-room crowd of 66,451 for its season-opener against Notre Dame. For the other five games at Heinz Field, the average crowd, based on tickets sold, was 35,036 -- and at some games, the actual crowd appeared to be much smaller than the number announced.

Borghetti said Pitt keeps track of the turnstile count for football games, but he refused to release those figures to the Tribune-Review.

"Gee, I wonder why?" said Jackson, the Temple professor. "How many comps are they giving away• They're trying to get fans in the seats. I bet if you were able to compare the gate receipts to the actual number of people in the stands, the numbers wouldn't match up.

"How would you like to be the CEO of Heinz, and find out the average attendance in the stadium that has your name on it is only a few thousand people?"

John Abrams, Pitt's director of facilities and operations, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The crowds at Pitt men's basketball games are among the best in the Big East. Last season, the Panthers ranked 34th nationally with an average attendance of 10,624, and the Petersen Events Center has been sold out of season tickets since it opened in 2002.

"There are some instances, typically during November and December non-conference (basketball) games, when the crowd is obviously not to capacity," Borghetti said. "In those cases, rather than using the tickets sold number (12,508), we use the turnstile count."

Low-tech options

Many Division I schools can compile their turnstile counts electronically. As fans pass through the gates, the bar codes on their tickets are scanned.

As schools started putting in high-tech scanners, they removed unnecessary turnstiles from stadiums and arenas. But at smaller schools, attendance is computed by more old-fashioned methods.

"I wish we had those (scanners)," said Marty Galosi, associate athletic director for marketing at Robert Morris. "We're still very much doing it by hand."

At many schools, students armed with "clickers" are stationed at the entrances to stadiums and arenas. But Mike Hoffman, the sports information director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, admitted the end result rarely is an accurate count.

Maybe a guy with a clicker is distracted and misses a few fans. Maybe he decides to make up for it with 10 or 20 extra clicks. Or maybe a fan is double-clicked by two different census takers at the gate.

Or maybe the final tally is a round number -- say, 1,000 on the button -- and the person in charge decides it looks too good to be true.

"I read that they once measured Mt. Everest as being 29,000 feet high, but they put down 29,002 so it didn't look like they were guessing," Hoffman said with a laugh. "That's what a lot of schools in our conference do with attendance."

Mt. Everest was listed as 29,002 feet tall in the mid-1800s. In 1954, the Indian government put it at 29,029. In 1999, when the precipice was most recently measured, another six feet were added.

If it's so hard to pin down the size of an immovable object such as Mt. Everest, who's to say exactly how big an ebbing and flowing crowd is at a college football game?

The fact is, no one can say for sure. This is where guesswork -- and fabrication -- comes in.

Pick a number

At smaller schools, the official attendance for everything from football to field hockey almost always is an estimate. Usually, tickets are not sold for the events -- admission can be marked by a hand stamp -- so there is no paper trail to track attendance, even for small crowds.

The home team's sports information director usually is in charge of compiling the attendance number. Instead of wasting time with an actual head count of a few hundred (or a few dozen) fans, the easiest thing to do is estimate.

The NCAA knows SIDs sometimes fudge the numbers, but will get involved only if a school's attendance figures seem way out of line.

"It depends how high up the food chain they are," Wright said. "If it's a school that's ranked 287th in basketball attendance, we're not going to worry about it. But if it's a school that goes from (being ranked) 300 one year to 27th the next, well ...

"We want the numbers to be as legitimate as they can be, but we don't have stat enforcement police."

When estimating a crowd, an SID never wants to come up with an embarrassingly low number.

"We never put it below 50, even if it's a rainy day for soccer," Point Park's Jodi Fick said.

At Pitt-Greensburg, the pick-a-number duty falls to a student doing a work-study job for the athletics department.

"Most of the time, he'll just count a few sections and then make an estimation based on the rest of them," Pitt-Greensburg spokesman Kevin Conlon said.

"One of our schools' SIDs takes dollar bills out of his wallet and uses the most convenient four-number sequence from the (serial number)," said Will Adair, assistant commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

Tom Byrnes, the SID at California University of Pennsylvania, said that when the stands are empty, it is his job to come up with a number that at least looks respectable.

Last winter, Cal hosted a women's basketball tournament at Hamer Hall (capacity 2,500). During a game between two out-of-state colleges, Shepherd and Dowling, Byrnes counted every person in the gym -- players, coaches, referees, scorekeepers and three curious students who wandered in to see why the lights were on.

"We had 101 people, so I listed the attendance as 100," Byrnes said. "If I had listed the people in the seats for that game, it would have been around 12."

A tweaked attendance number can be symbolic, glorifying a lopsided victory or a special player. It can be a subtle way to take a shot at an opponent. Or it may commemorate something as humdrum as a block on the calendar.

"Notice how often the last three digits is a jumble of the date (of the game). That's an SID's fingerprint," Georgetown sports information director William Shapland said.

In 1998, IUP's football team crushed Clarion, 52-14. The next season, when the rematch was played at Indiana's George P. Miller Stadium (capacity: 6,500), the attendance was listed as 5,214.

Before he became the SID at Duquesne, Dave Saba worked at Texas. During the 1991-92 season, the Longhorns' starting forward, Dexter Cambridge, was suspended for 16 games for accepting money from a booster. After Cambridge returned to action, Texas played a road game against Texas Tech.

"The attendance figure Tech listed for the game was 4,600," Saba said. "Mysteriously, it was the exact same amount of money Cambridge had to reimburse the booster to regain his eligibility."

On senior night last season for the Louisville men's hoops team, associate athletic director Kenny Klein gave some props to guard Taquan Dean. The official head count went into the books as 19,505 -- with the final 5 signifying the uniform number of Dean, the team's lone senior.

Tom Schott, the SID at Purdue, once fudged the numbers in honor of someone who was playing in a game two thousand miles away.

In 1989, Schott was a student assistant at Ohio Wesleyan. On an afternoon when the school drew one of the biggest football crowds in its history, Schott guessed the fans numbered around 6,000

Schott reported it as 6,050 -- because 50 was the number worn by Scott Garrelts, the starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in their World Series game that night against the Oakland A's.

"I was an avid Giants fan, so it seemed like the logical thing to do," Schott said.

Of course, some schools don't even bother to record attendance. St. Vincent College in Latrobe officially lists the crowd size for just one game each year -- the men's basketball clash against arch-rival Seton Hill.

"That game's always a sellout," SID Jeff Zidek said. "Our gym holds 1,234, so that's the number I use."

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Football attendance
1998 (112 teams in Division I-A)
Rank, team
1. Michigan
3. Penn State
29. WVU
Home slate included Ohio State, Miami
46. Pitt
2-9 record, with both wins coming at home
1999 (114 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
3. Penn State
41. WVU
Overall record sank to 4-7
51. Pitt
2000 (114 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
4. Penn State
Sub-.500 record for first time since 1988
32. WVU
51. Pitt
2001 (115 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
2. Penn State
12,000 seats added before season
35. Pitt
First season at Heinz Field
37. WVU
2002 (117 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
2. Penn State
Drew 110,753 for Nebraska game
35. WVU
44. Pitt
2003 (117 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
2. Penn State
28. Pitt
Drew 60,486 for regular-season finale against Miami
38. WVU
2004 (117 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
4. Penn State
36. WVU
51. Pitt
Finished in four-way tie for Big East title
2005 (117 teams in Division I-A)
1. Michigan
4. Penn State
Drew 109,839 on rainy night for OSU game
33. WVU
Big East champs, won Sugar Bowl