By Daniel Libit
“Attendance” is really not a noun open to semantic interpretation, especially in the collegiate setting. If, let’s say, you have perfect attendance, it’s because you’ve physically shown up for every class. But in the intercollegiate setting, and especially with college football, “attendance” has become a largely aspirational concept.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, average official attendance figures for Football Bowl Subdivsion (FBS) programs in 2017 were 71 percent higher than their actual scanned ticket counts for home games. It’s no surprise, then, that the current scenes of college football stadiums tend to look less huddled than the last lines of the box scores would indicate. That certainly appears to be the case at the University of New Mexico’s graveyard of ghosts, Dreamstyle Stadium.
Unlike most FBS schools, UNM does not scan its football tickets, thus making it difficult to know how big the gap is between the Lobos’ official “attendance” figures and reality. But through a recent public records request, NMFishbowl.com has obtained some illuminating data that not only shows how the university inflates its home football crowds, but how it greatly exaggerates its season ticket sales, as well. In essence, if you already thought UNM’s gridiron situation was grim, based on the established metrics, there’s only more reason for pessimism once they’ve been subdivided.
For the final Lobo football home game this season, on Nov. 24, the announced attendance was 14,269. Even taking this number at face value, it represented a pretty unimpressive showing: just 38 percent of the stadium’s official capacity of 37,254. (According to the NCAA’s bylaws, Division I schools must maintain a rolling, two-year average of at least 15,000 “in actual or paid attendance” for home football games, in order to keep their place in the top-tiered FBS.)
And yet, on that unseasonably lovely, 63-degree Saturday afternoon last month, it was clear to anybody who actually went to Dreamstyle Stadium (as chronicled on message boards and social media for the rest of us), that this unimpressive attendance figure still significantly overstated the actual quantity of sentient beings present for the Lobos’ 3-31 loss to Wyoming.
Santa Fe New Mexican sports reporter Will Webber captured the stadium’s scanty tableau that day with a montage tweet showing half-time crowd photos that compared similarly with the gathering for the Lobos’ spring practice game. “At Alabama they drop helicopters into the stadium to dry the field,” Webber wrote. “At UNM they shutter half the concession stands because fewer than 10,000 fans show up.”
Yes, by all visual evidence, the crowd was well short of 10,000 — and probably by at least a few thousand.
“Probably,” we’re relegated to say, because unlike for UNM men’s and women’s basketball, there are no scanned ticket figures for football games. (KRQE reported in March on The Pit’s “phantom fans,” finding as much as a 217 percent attendance inflation during one Lady Lobos contest last season.)
So why is the hard crowd data so wanting for football? A UNM athletic department spokesman declined to respond to questions for this story. But in responses to other inquiring reporters, the school has maintained that since Dreamstyle Stadium is not equipped with WiFi, UNM can’t utilize the ticket-scanning technology employed at The Pit.
Quite possibly, since scanned ticket counts aren’t mandated by the NCAA, UNM’s athletic department has little interest in categorically documenting the pittance that passes through Dreamstyle’s turnstiles; after all, the school could purchase these handheld tally counters on Amazon for $2.29 apiece, no WiFi required.
So, if UNM doesn’t keep track of who really attends its football games, how does it come up with its official attendance figures?
In response to a public records request, UNM provided me the full, detailed breakdown of the various ticket categories, 49 in all, which were added up to arrive at that 14,269 figure on Nov. 24.
Actually, and crucially, there’s a 50th integer in its stadium arithmetic: for every home game, UNM includes an “auditing number” of 1,326, which ostensibly accounts for all the unticketed people in the venue: players, staff, band members, concession workers, cheerleaders, lupine furries, and so forth. Technically, they are in attendance, but it’s unlikely this precise-seeming number accurately captures them. After all, according to the university, the same accounting number has been in use “since the ’80s.”
The important thing to note is that, when enumerating official attendance figures, UNM, not unlike other schools, includes all the tickets it distributes, whether or not they are actually used. The apparent objective, then, is to find plenty of creative ways to distribute them.
Consider that for the Nov. 24 game, of the 12,946 tickets recorded:
- Only 6,382 were actually purchased
- 1,746 were distributed to Learfield’s Lobo Sports Properties, UNM’s licensing partner
- 1,628 were distributed, or comped, to UNM’s other media partners
- 1,668 were comped to others
- Only 25 percent (3,329) of the 4,459 single game tickets were purchased
- Only 645 of the 1,115 purchased single game tickets were bought at face value
Here are the breakdowns of single game tickets:
[table id=3 /]
[table id=4 /]
[table id=5 /]
The distributed figures show not only how UNM juices attendances for individual games, but how it does so for season ticket sales, as well. According to an Albuquerque Journal story last month, UNM claimed to have sold “about 8,500 season tickets.” (The athletic department has made similar representations to other media.) But did it actually sell that many? Not even close.
In an email to NMFishbowl.com, UNM’s Interim Director of Ticketing Lea Cherry explained that season tickets were reflected in the Nov. 24 breakdown by the tallying up of 31 “SUB” (subscription) categories. Here’s that breakdown:
[table id=1 /]
However, of the 8,487 total subscription tickets, at least 3,057 were given away by the university as part of promotions, in-kind exchanges, or straight up comps. Here’s that subgroup:
[table id=2 /]
To wit: “Car Dealer” season tickets refer to those UNM provides to local dealerships that donate in-kind gifts to the athletic department, such as vehicles for the Lobo Courtesy Car Program. “Hotel Comp” are the free tickets UNM gives to hotel partners.
Under its multi-media rights agreement with Lobo Sports Properties, UNM is required to provide a certain number of tickets to Learfield each year, at no additional cost beyond its annual rights fee. In addition, Learfield is given exclusive use of nine luxury suites for each game. Even if you regard Learfield’s lot as part of the “paid season tickets,” which is a generous interpretation, that would still mean UNM sold, at most, 7,022 season tickets in 2018. If you don’t count Learfield’s, UNM sold just 5,276 season tickets this year.
So, how many people actually showed up for the Lobos’ season finale? Alas, we still don’t know that precise number and probably never will, although the university is in the process of purchasing a new ticketing system. But we do know the actual or paid attendances are nothing close to the 14,269 UNM claimed were on hand or the 12,946 tickets it doled out. We know that not all 8,487 season ticket holders showed up to this game because, among other things, we know there’s not really 8,487 season ticket holders.
Officially, UNM averaged crowds of 16,587 in 2018. As unimpressive as that number is, we have a sense of how much this still exaggerates both the community’s interest in and the financial prospects of Lobo football games.
Perhaps, this is why the UNM athletic department continues to wildly miss its budget goals, even after cutting this fiscal year’s projected annual football gate to $1.2 million, a 37 percent drop from the previous year. According to budget actuals presented last month to the UNM Board of Regent’s Finance and Facilities committee, the school made $465,311 in football ticket proceeds through its first three (of six total) 2018 home games. By the end of October, the school was already 27 percent off pace from reaching its 2018-19 revenue projections, and the crowds would only trend downwards from that point on.
Following the Lobos’ Nov. 3 game against San Diego State, head coach Bob Davie joked about the Albuquerque crowd fitting “on a couple of bleachers.” When the Albuquerque Journal quoted this in its ensuing story on poor ticket sales, UNM’s Assistant Athletic Director of Communications Frank Mercogliano privately railed against a Journal reporter for hurting “Coach Davie’s reputation.”
And yet, despite all this gloom, there is a bright side.
The Nov. 24 game — which officially featured the smallest crowd of the Davie era — demonstrated that no matter how bad things get, UNM has a failsafe, Bialystock-and-Bloom-like scheme in place to hit that 15,000 attendance mark. And so, by the grace of creative stadium accounting, Lobo football can keep limping along as a Failing But Steadfast member of the almighty FBS.
Featured Image by NMFishbowl.com