Most professional sailing events use public space, are free-to-view and don’t sell tickets, so it can be quite hard to work out just how many fans there are. While some rights owners are transparent about their measurement methods, others frequently quote numbers that don’t seem to add up.
It’s not just sailing that plays with the statistics. According to research published by the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, crowd attendance measurement is frequently inaccurate for both ticketed and non-ticketed events.
For ticketed events, the most common reasons for inflated figures are non-attendance of season ticket holders (who are nevertheless counted) and repeat viewing across multi-day events in which individual spectators are double or even triple counted.
Free-to-view events like the majority of sailing, tend to show the greatest discrepancies between the numbers claimed by organisers and reality.
Larissa Davies, Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, who undertook the research, says that the measurement methods leave a great deal to be desired.
“There appears to be a genuine gap in knowledge about the processes involved in estimating attendance figures at free-to-view events.”
There seem to be problems with measuring so called ‘casual’ spectators (or passers-by), and ‘repeat spectators’, i.e. those who may be counted more than once.
One example involves a past London Marathon. Initial baseline estimates were created by roughly calculating the density of people along a 2.5 metre section of barrier and multiplying it by the length of the course. This placed audience attendance levels at 480,000. However, analysis showed that crowd density fluctuated along the course, which meant that initial figures were inflated. Furthermore, the researchers also polled 1005 ‘spectators’ to establish motivations for attending the event and to establish movement patterns on the day. This demonstrated that there were a large number of casual and repeat spectators and as a result, the baseline estimate was reduced to 282,600 – a staggering 41% difference. Even this was considered generous and was in complete contrast to the figure of one million given by the BBC.
Another example concerns a major UK cycling event. Hand held counters, television footage analysis and estimates from local officials were used to generate a baseline estimate of 11,500 at the most popular spectator locations of the event. 423 spectator surveys issued at these ‘honey spots’ indicated that 13% of spectators were there by coincidence (passers by) and that, on average, respondents would watch the event from a further 1.12 locations. This brought the baseline figure down to 8,933 in the honey spots and suggested that the organiser’s claim of an additional 46,000 people watching the event along the remainder of the course was not credible.
Non-elite and free-to-view events clearly have the potential to reach vast numbers of fans. Consequently, they can help sponsors achieve their marketing objectives. Yet the research indicates that accurate evaluation of audience attendance is vital if sponsors are to be persuaded to invest.
Perhaps one way that sailing can become more accountable is to create purpose built arenas like the one used for the Monsoon Cup, part of the World Match Racing Tour. Forcing fans to buy tickets for sailing events may also give rights-owners a wake-up call as to how many ‘real’ fans there are.
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