Are theme parks more popular than pro sports?

July 16, 2018, 1:34 PM · How does theme park attendance compare with other out-of-home entertainment options? Do theme parks attract more — or fewer — paying customers than sports leagues, for example? And how about other destinations and amusements?

A recent Forbes article tries to answer that question, comparing attendance numbers from the recent TEA/AECOM Theme Index report with reported attendance numbers from several sports leagues around the world.

The trick in any such comparison is comparing the apples to other apples, of course. The article essentially acknowledges that question in comparing in-person attendance numbers with much fuzzier estimates of television viewership. It mocked Formula 1's infamous claim that 57.8 billion people watched its broadcasts one year, which is ridiculous given that the world's population is only about one-tenth of that.

Formula 1 likely got to that number adding up the viewership number for all of its broadcasts, ignoring that F1 fans were watching multiple broadcasts throughout the year. But the hard fact is that theme park attendance numbers double-count, too. The TEA/AECOM numbers are supposed to count only one park visit per person per day, but many visitors go to a specific park or resort more than one day in a year, so even the Theme Index report doesn't give us the Holy Grail of theme park attendance numbers — the number of unique visitors to a park or resort in a calendar year.

I would love to see those numbers, because I suspect that they would radically shuffle the attendance rankings. With its huge number of annual passholders coming to the park again and again, Disneyland likely draws far fewer than half as many unique annual visitors as Disney World, even though that's the gap in daily attendance numbers reported by TEA/AECOM. Heck, let's start a flame war: I would bet that the Disneyland Resort's actual unique visitor count in a year is not that much more than Universal Studios Hollywood's unique count. (And yes, before someone makes the argument — Disneyland fans visit more often than USH fans. That's my point. The total click count at Disneyland reflects far greater repeat visitation.)

But even if we just look at total paid visits — ignoring the repeat customers — how do theme parks compare? The Forbes article comes to this question from the perspective of judging the relative value of sponsorship opportunities, asking which venues provide the best exposure for potential advertisers. But it omits many other relevant candidates, including some of the world's most popular theme park resorts.

While the Forbes report includes Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris, it omits Tokyo Disney, Shanghai Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland, all of which would attract enough visitors to make its top 20 list. Forbes also omits several popular sports, including NCAA college football and basketball, both of which attracted more fans last year than any theme park resort not named "Walt Disney World." The report also only considers Formula 1 among motor sports, despite the fact that NASCAR's Cup series programs more races than F1, and the IndyCar series includes the world's most-attended single-day annual sporting event in the Indianapolis 500.

And if we are talking about paid-attendance out-of-home entertainment, everything on this list pales next to the motion picture industry, which sold more than 1.2 billion tickets to movie theaters in the United States last year. Number two on that list would be America's National Park Service, which welcomed more than 330 million visitors last year, too.

With the Forbes' article emphasis on sponsorship value, it's not really fair to compare individual theme park resorts and sports leagues with the entire movie theater industry. A more appropriate comparison would be the NFL versus AMC Theaters, for example. But to that end, perhaps it would make more sense to group theme parks by their chain rather than considering them on venue-by-venue basis. (For example, Disney Parks is to the NFL as Disneyland is to the Dallas Cowboys.)

Grouping things that way and limiting this to the United States to make things easier, here's my take on the list:

I suspect that NASCAR's cumulative attendance compares to the MLS, though IndyCar is probably under two million. The PGA and ATP Tour clearly attract several million fans a year in the US, as well.

I also wanted to include ski visits, but couldn't get a number for Vail Resorts, which is America's largest ski operator. Adding together some numbers I found online, I am suspect that Vail Resorts probably attracts around 10 million daily visitors a year across its U.S. resorts.

Movie theater operator Regal Entertainment Group likely ranks up near the top of this list, as would concert and theater promoters Live Nation Entertainment, AEG Live, and Nederlander Organization, too.

But, all in all, theme park companies compare very favorably with other out-of-home entertainment alternatives in annual paid attendance, and the top U.S. theme park chains actual draw more people each year than top sports leagues. For all the frustrations that theme park fans have had wth SeaWorld's parks over the past decade, I think it is remarkable that more people went to SeaWorld chain theme parks than NFL games last year. Even if you want to go back to the "unique visitor" standard, I think that statement still holds, given how much of NFL attendance is driven by season-ticket holders who go to up to 10 games a year.

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Replies (6)

July 16, 2018 at 2:32 PM

A turnstile click is still a visit. Repeat visits count just as much as one-time visits, but park hopping dilutes it further. Ultimately, it's the revenue that matters. The NFL is a big money maker from sponsors to television licenses to merchandising. Many fans can't afford a nose bleed seat. I'm guessing Major League Baseball has even more unrealized capacity. Many baseball teams have almost empty stadiums.

July 16, 2018 at 2:56 PM

Marketing effectiveness comes down to three factors:

1) How many people you are reaching

2) How often you are reaching them

3) How amenable they are to your message

The trouble wth turnstile clicks (which doesn't actually happen anymore at most venues thanks to electronic scanning), is that it conflates the first two factors. It doesn't tell you the breakdown of unique visitors versus visits per unique.

That becomes especially important when you consider the third factor. Are the repeat visitors more or less likely to be in your target demo? Repeat visitation can be wonderful... provided the repeat visitors are the ones in the population who are most amenable to your message. If they are less likely than the one-time visitors to act upon your message, then those extra visits are doing you no good.

While at the end of the day, it's still all exposure, every marketing pro I've ever met wants those first two factors broken out. And I would love to see them for theme park attendance, too. It would help inform a deeper understanding of the business of this industry.

July 16, 2018 at 3:24 PM

I want to see the average revenue of each of those visitor categories. My bet is pro sports rakes it in, while national parks make a pittance. I see $8 beers on every member of that list. Too cynical? Hmmn.

July 16, 2018 at 5:59 PM

Robert. As an historian. As much as newspaper people are historians. But. I believe you did theme park as early as the 70's right? I am very surprised you failed to put out the historial evolution of theme park sponsorships being devalued, starting around the early 80's (i think. going by memory). I do not think that is by chance that that was shortly after both pro sports and live concerts skyrocketed in attendance. How often you are reaching them is very much about for how long per encounter. For. concerts and sports banners, it's 2-4 hours. For theme parks, it's 30-60 seconds, while going under a banner at the start of end of a ride. In terms of demographics most of disney and universal's customer should be in the prized 25-46 demo, with a good amount of disposable income.

July 16, 2018 at 8:11 PM

I was wondering when someone would point this out: The Forbes report omits Tokyo Disney, Shanghai Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland, all of which would attract enough visitors to make its top 20 list.

July 17, 2018 at 1:17 PM

A few observations:

1. Now that Disney Parks are beginning to require registration of tickets (facial recognition, etc.), they do have unique visitor data. Of course, they're never going to share that, but it does exist!

2. There are conflicting marketing models at work - getting your product in front of as many people as possible, and repeated exposure to the same individual. I mean, do I really need to see the same Ram Truck commercial 14 times while watching Ghosted (RIP)? No. But do I remember that I did? Absolutely!

3. Comparing TV broadcasts and, to a certain extent, theme park attendance numbers to in-person sporting event numbers is a misnomer. There are a finite number of games in stadiums that accommodate a finite number of people. If all NFL games routinely sell-out, that highest possible number still can't possibly beat out Disney theme park attendees.

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