In analyzing attendance at NCAA men’s basketball games over the past four years, my colleague Alex Richards and I had a few moments when we wondered how accurately institutions were reporting their numbers.
Both of us were surprised at the high number of sellouts. Nine Division I programs, including some middling teams with pretty big arenas, reported perfect attendance for more than half of their home games during the past four years, according to Alex’s analysis. If you watch any regular-season basketball, it’s hard to believe that so many programs are filling every seat that often.
We also noted some discrepancies between the attendance listed in ESPN box scores and the numbers in the NCAA’s annual report on men’s basketball attendance.
To get a better handle on things, I reached out to a senior athletics official in a prominent BCS program and asked whether institutions report the actual number of people attending the game.
“There’s a distinct difference in what we’re all reporting in tickets sold and what the actual attendance is,” this person told me. Some programs apparently inflate their attendance number 15 to 20 percent. “It’d be interesting if we were all looking at real numbers, but those aren’t really numbers you want to throw around.”
The NCAA says its figures account for the total number of bodies in the facility. “This is not necessarily paid attendance since each institution has different ways to compile that number,” an NCAA spokesman, Cameron Schuh, wrote in an e-mail. “There also is the issue of students, and how they are counted, especially for some of the smaller Division I basketball programs.”
“Our goal is to provide an accurate account of everyone who attended these events, not just those who paid to watch,” he added. “That is a key difference from other publicized reports and the way we have compiled the attendance numbers from the beginning of our record compiling.”
Chad D. McEvoy, an associate professor of sport management at Illinois State University who has done research on college basketball attendance, says he has always been skeptical of the numbers. “Is it paid attendance? Butts in seats? What is that number?” he says.
“I was a former marketing guy in college athletics,” says McEvoy, who recently accepted a position at Syracuse University. “I remember looking around stadiums going, ‘Does it look like 500 to you? OK, let’s say 500 then.’”