Sunday, December 04, 2016
Forbes Slices Feld Circus Attendance Claim in Half; Reports that Circus Box Office Accounts for Only 15% of Annual Feld Entertainment Revenue
For the first time that I can recall, a news organization has tried to fact check the feel-good claims of a circus owner talking up attendance on his show.
Kate Vinton, a reporter for Forbes magazine, working on an in-depth look into the impressive fortunes and business genius of billionaire big top owner Kenneth Feld, was not satisfied with his account of attendance records. "Feld is tight-lipped about Ringling's numbers, insisting as he has for years that annual attendance has remained at about 10 million.”
Of course, Feld can say whatever he wants, knowing there are no go-to box office tracking organizations (like the Nielsen's in TV) for attendance figures under the nation’s big tops, against which the claims of circus owners can be tested by reporters.
Nonetheless, Vinton dug deeper, and she discovered some telling evidence that tells a different story.
She had read the piece in the New York Observer about the plight of Big Apple Circus, and was left intrigued with how I was quoted in it as guessing that U.S. big top crowd sizes over the last few decades have probably declined by between 30% to 50%.
Kate e-mailed me with a simple question: “I wanted to reach out to you to confirm if you still think this is an accurate estimate.”
I replied, giving her the may reasons for my estimation, as I had the Observer’s reporter, stressing to her as I had to him that we are speculating in the dark, and how frustrating it can be.
Why does the topic interest me? Because it interests everybody when discussing a particular entertainment, the two main questions usually being, the quality of the show and the size of the crowd.
Her story would go to press including my estimated 30% to 50% drop in attendance at U.S. circuses.
And to her professional credit, Vinton dug deeper into other, more concrete sources, reporting, relative to the Kenneth Feld claim, “but the little data that does get reported tells a very different story.”
Here is what she found:
* The trade publication Venues Today reported that Ringling’s Out of this World drew 56,000 people to 12 shows at Staples Center, marking a “35% drop from a comparable weekend in July 2011.” That figure is not a surprise to me.
* The National Endowment for the Arts reported on gross revenue for U.S. circuses in the U.S. falling almost 9% between 2007 and 2012. I’m not sure what to make of this figure, for I assume that NEA would not be in touch with most U.S. circuses, which operate in the private sector.
* Circus revenue makes up only 15% of all Feld live events.
* Finally, writes Vinton, “Forbes estimates that the Ringling Bros’ annual attendance numbers today are closer to 5 million.”
This is responsible journalism of the first order, if only we had more of it.
And interesting to speculate. If Forbes is correct, let’s then give each of the two Feld circus units a total of 2.5 million customers a year. In 1967, the last year of Ringling family ownership when they operated only one unit, management claimed a total attendance of 4, 164,029 people. Under the early Irvin Feld years, the number is likely to have risen. Back in the old six-pole tent days, maybe many more.
How refreshing for the circus to get more realistically reported on by a major news outlet.
Next: What other things we learn from the fine Forbes coverage.
Thanks to Don Covington, for a link to the Forbes story.