Commentary: Why the Hawks’ attendance figures are disingenuous

I’ve been hard on the Hawks’ organization for its announced attendance figures all season long.

Maybe it’s time I explain.

The Hawks are back home tonight to face the Celtics in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, which is tied 2-2. The Celtics had an advantage in Games 3 and 4 at home in TD Garden. That is not to say the crowd in Atlanta for Games 1 and 2 was not loud and supportive. It simply wasn’t as loud. That’s a fact.

My issue with the Hawks’ announced attendance is that the numbers are manipulated and disingenuous. I get a lot of comments on Twitter when I point out the announced attendance figure accompanied by — more often than not — a snide remark. The comments fall into three categories: Some do find them humorous (OK, not that many); some think I’m doing a disservice to the team and have an agenda to see the franchise moved from Atlanta. (That’s not going to happen); some think the inflated attendance figures bother me. (Trust me, they don’t).

First let me point out that I am well aware that the NBA allows the attendance figure to be tickets distributed and not tickets sold. There is a big difference. Believe me.

Let’s take the example of Game 2 of this series. Here are the attendance figures provided to me by a source inside the organization.

Announced attendance: 18,972 (recorded as a sellout)

Tickets sold: 16,358

Complimentary tickets: 2,614

Actual attendance: 14,256

So the number of fans in the building last week, known as the drop, was 4,716 less than the announced figure. That’s substantial.

There are some other interesting things to note in the numbers. The number of tickets sold was more than the drop, meaning 2,102 people who paid for tickets did not attend the game.

Where the announced attendance figure gets manipulated is the complimentary tickets. Here’s what is worth noting about that number. For both Games 1 and 2 and again for Game 5, the 300-plus employees of the Hawks were given, yes given, six free tickets. Two of those tickets were in the lower bowl. In other words, good seats. In addition, some ticket comps never left the building. I’ll use one department as an example (I won’t get specific to protect those who offered me the insight). It was given a number of tickets (less than 100) to distribute to those non full-time employees who work in the department. Only about 60 percent were given away. That leaves 40 percent that were never given away but counted toward the attendance. Trust me from my days covering the Thrashers, I witnessed many a time when staff employees had stacks of tickets in their pocket to give away.

As of yesterday, there were 2,300 tickets unsold for Game 5. Radio appearances were made by those within the organization to encourage fans to buy tickets to the game and create a similar home-court advantage as that of the Celtics.

The Celtics announced a sellout crowd of 18,624 for both games in Boston. A difference of nearly 4,400 fans makes a difference.

The Hawks are not the only team to manipulate the numbers. I get it. There are many games I cover where the announced attendance is nowhere near the actual attendance. The Heat keep announcing sellouts and they play to games with a less than full upper bowl. There are also teams like the Thunder, Bulls, Warriors and Raptors (just a few) who routinely play to sellout crowds no matter the team record.

The Hawks finished 22nd in the NBA in attendance with an announced average of 16,832 in their 41 home games. They announced 14 regular-season sellouts. One, maybe the last game in Atlanta of Kobe Bryant, might have been close to an actual sellout.

Something else worth noting is that the Hawks routinely change the number of fans that constitutes a sellout. Each sellout this season has had a different total. A lot depends, I suppose, on whether they open the 400 level or not. Here are the announced attendance figures for the last four sellouts of the regular season: 18,123, 19,333, 18,087 and 19,427.

Also, it’s really easy to see the empty seats when you have a T-shirt give-away.

In closing, let me reiterate that I’m not making disparaging comments about the crowds at Philips Arena. There are lots of points that can be debated on the subject of Atlanta and its fans. It’s also not about the cost of tickets. We can save all that for another day. The playoff crowds have been loud and supportive. All I’m pointing out is the blatant manipulation of the numbers. I get the marketing to create buzz and demand.

So now when you see my tweets about the number of people that must be in line for the bathroom or to get a hot dog, you’ll know where I’m coming from. Trust me, those empty seats are not all occupied by fans who left for Club Red.

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