The most recent AutoZone Liberty Bowl drew an "announced" 57,000 and an actual 31,578. And the 2011 Southern Heritage Classic announced 43,532 while actual attendance was 26,398. (Pure coincidence that this is the same number as the Tiger opener, according to Memphis Division of Parks Director Cindy Buchanan and her assistant, who provided and double-checked the numbers at The Flyer's request.)
According to Buchanan, total attendance for the eight games at the stadium last year was 120,300, compared to the sum of the "announced" attendance of 221,002 by the stadium's three tenants.
It is common knowledge that announced attendance, which includes tickets sold and distributed but not necessarily used, is often inflated. It is also common practice among colleges and professional teams and the media outlets that follow them. What is not so clearly known is the gap between reporting and reality. It's a downer, and it does not endear reporters to the people and organizations they must report on.
The gap is especially relevant now in reference to Liberty Bowl Stadium. Tenants and boosters say the stadium needs an upgrade, and the Memphis City Council and city taxpayers may be asked to shoulder some of the costs. The tenants have also told Councilman Reid Hedgepeth that they will bear at least half of the costs of the upgrades and are aware of the city's financial predicament.
In other words, it's time to look at real numbers. The games are an important part of the local sports scene and, even at the low number, bring thousands of out-of-towners to Memphis and help put paying customers in hotels and restaurants. At the same time, however, a ticket that is distributed but unused does not contribute to the stadium ambience, concession sales, or parking revenue. And the city gets a share of the latter two.
On March 20, the City Council must decide how much public support should be pledged to upgrading the stadium. Hedgepeth said the tenants would provide specific numbers then. Actual attendance should be among them.
Here are the numbers Buchanan provided for each game: AutoZone Liberty Bowl, 31,578, Southern Heritage Classic, 26,398; Mississippi State, 26398; Austin Peay, 9,198; SMU, 9,208; East Carolina, 7,128; UAB, 7,127; Marshall, 3,301.