Stadium Thoughts and Musings: How big is big enough?

Stephen Dunn

Any speculation on a new football stadium for San Diego and the San Diego Chargers should center on what exactly needs to be built. It's something like a Goldilocks quest: in this case, not too big, not too small, but just right.

The Chargers don't want to lose potential ticket money by building a stadium which is too small. Chargers fans don't want something which is too big, and have to deal with potential blackouts. The city of San Diego doesn't want to spend more money than is absolutely necessary, and needs to make it accessible to other events. The NFL would like a stadium just big enough to host a Super Bowl.

With these ideas in mind let's try and get an idea of how big the Chargers stadium should be.

Chargers' Official Stance

First Things First, what are the Chargers' current thoughts on this?

"Our goal has been to construct a smaller stadium, with approximately 62,000 permanent seats. We set this goal because (1) it is far less expensive to build a smaller facility; and (2) a smaller facility would allow us to dramatically minimize the possibility of blackouts. We would design the stadium so that it could be expanded, to NFL specifications, to 72,000 seats, making us eligible for Super Bowls."

- Mark Fabiani, Special Counsel to the President

Is this the right idea? Let's look at some numbers

Qualcomm Stadium by the numbers:

  • Total Capacity: 70,561
  • Number of Club Seats: 7,884
  • Number of Luxury Boxes: 112 (guessing 20 people per box, about 2,200 people)
  • Obstructed View Seats: unknown but I'm using 2,500 as a number.
  • Total (estimated) General admission seats, not including obstructed view: 57,977.
  • Blackout Number: About 56,500 (does not count club seats, luxury boxes, or obstructed view seats).

This leaves a difference of about 1,500 seats between the estimated General Attendance number and the Blackout Number. As of this writing, I don't know if this gap is part of the NFL blackout policy, or if these 1,500 seats are counted as disabled seating, or if this gap is the result of the estimates themselves.

A Look at NFL Metropolitan Markets

I think any discussion of a new stadium relies on having a strong understanding of the location of the NFL team in question, as well as a general idea of how different markets relate to each other. The simple truth is that it's harder for smaller markets to consistently fill large stadiums, because there's fewer people to draw from, and a higher level of competition for money from the market in question.

With this in mind, take a look at Table 1 below. Table 1 shows the NFL City, Market Size, Stadium Capacity, Percent of Market needed to fill the stadium to capacity (1.24%), the capacity of a stadium in all markets using the 1.24% average, does the market over/underperform against the league average, and the average ticket (non-premium) cost.

NFL City Market Size[1] Capacity[2] % of market Proj Capacity Perform ± Avg. (nl)Cost[3]
New York Giants 23,362,096 82,566 0.35% 289,690 -0.89% $111.69
New York Jets 23,362,096 82,566 0.35% 289,690 -0.89% $110.28
Chicago 9,899,902 61,500 0.62% 122,759 -0.62% $103.60
San Francisco 8,370,964 69,732 0.83% 103,800 -0.41% $83.54
Oakland 8,370,964 53,200 0.64% 103,800 -0.60% $64.80
Boston 7,991,371 68,756 0.86% 99,093 -0.38% $117.84
Philadelphia 7,129,428 68,532 0.96% 88,405 -0.28% $93.01
Dallas 7,095,411 80,000 1.13% 87,983 -0.11% $110.20
Miami 6,375,434 75,540 1.18% 79,055 -0.06% $71.14
Houston 6,371,677 71,054 1.12% 79,009 -0.12% $88.98
Atlanta 6,092,295 71,228 1.17% 75,544 -0.07% $83.71
Washington DC 5,860,342 85,000 1.45% 72,668 0.21% $94.80
Detroit 5,311,449 65,000 1.22% 65,862 -0.02% $67.60
Seattle 4,399,332 67,000 1.52% 54,552 0.28% $71.21
Phoenix 4,329,534 63,400 1.46% 53,686 0.22% $79.56
Denver 3,882,571 77,160 1.99% 48,144 0.75% $84.27
Minneapolis 3,789,978 64,121 1.69% 46,996 0.45% $78.69
Cleveland 3,497,711 73,200 2.09% 43,372 0.85% $54.20
Tampa Bay 3,459,036 65,890 1.90% 42,892 0.66% $63.59
Cincinnati 3,267,418 65,535 2.01% 40,516 0.77% $68.96
San Diego 3,177,063 70,561 2.22% 39,396 0.98% $84.55
Green Bay 2,997,944 80,750 2.69% 37,175 1.45% $82.61
Charlotte 2,944,266 73,208 2.49% 36,509 1.25% $66.84
St. Louis 2,900,805 66,000 2.28% 35,970 1.04% $74.49
Baltimore 2,753,149 71,008 2.58% 34,139 1.34% $100.19
Pittsburgh 2,661,369 65,050 2.44% 33,001 1.20% $81.13
New Orleans 2,516,809 73,208 2.91% 31,208 1.67% $57.75
Kansas City 2,401,217 76,416 3.18% 29,775 1.94% $64.92
Buffalo 2,391,234 73,079 3.06% 29,651 1.82% $57.75
Indianapolis 2,310,360 62,421 2.70% 28,648 1.46% $86.32
Nashville 2,001,035 69,143 3.46% 24,813 2.22% $65.28
Jacksonville 1,646,082 67,246 4.09% 20,411 2.85% $68.44
Averages 5,716,261 70,596 1.24% 70,882 0.00% $81.00
Incidental Information
NFL City Market Size[1] Capacity[2] % of market Proj Capacity Perform ±
New Stadium SD 3,177,063 62,000 1.95% 39396 0.71%
Los Angeles + Inland Empire 17,403,017
Los Angeles 13,052,921

Data Notes:

  • I elected not to divide the New York and Bay Area metro areas in half and give half to each team (Giants/Jets in New York, 49ers/Raiders in Oakland), because these teams are competing with each other, and it's possible for some people to attend games for both teams. However, if they were divided, the average market size is reduced, and the average percentage of fans needed to fill a stadium to capacity rises to 1.49%.
  • I generally attempted to reflect the NFL's blackout radius, and included metropolitan areas within 75 miles. In the specific case of the Packers, the metro areas of Madison and Milwaukee were included.
  • San Diego's market size does not include Los Angeles or Inland Empire in any way, and actually is a smaller market than Inland Empire.

Some general observations:

  • Large markets such as New York have a much easier time getting capacity crowds, simply because a lower number of people per market are needed.
  • Smaller market franchises have to attract a substantially larger percentage of their market to attend games, making quality product and public appeal even more important.
  • Based on the average market size, and average percentage of fans needed to fill a stadium, about half of the NFL's stadiums are too big.
  • Jacksonville's fans may be good fans, but the market doesn't appear to be able to support anything less than a consistently above average football team. Based on these numbers, about 1 out of every 25 people in the Jacksonville market are needed to fill their stadium to capacity.

Takeaways specific to the San Diego Chargers:

  • In addition to all of its other problems, Qualcomm Stadium is simply too big. More than 2 out of every 100 people in San Diego needs to go to Chargers games for Qualcomm to reach capacity.
  • People in the San Diego metro area attend NFL games at a higher proportion than most cities with "better" fanbases (i.e. more fans does not equal better / more loyal fans).
  • San Diego ranks 21st in market size, yet has the 16th largest stadium, the 11th highest average (non-premium) ticket price, and is the 21st easiest stadium to sell out.

San Diego Chargers Attendance Data

Based on the market size and average % of persons attending a game, the ideal capacity of a new stadium would be about 39,400. Since we know that's a number too low for any NFL stadium, let's look at the Chargers' attendance numbers for the last 15 years, and see how their performance tracks in Table 2.

Table 2 shows the Year, the Won Loss Record, Total Home Attendance, Average Attendance per Game, the Percent of Capacity, and the Number of Blackouts that season At the bottom of the Table, we have a Grand Total, and then "Bad" (10+ losses), "Meh" (7-9 wins), and "Good" (10+ wins).

Year Win Loss Attendance Avg. Game % Capacity Blackouts
1998[4] 5 11 476,718 59,590 84.5% N/A
1999[5] 8 8 476,999 59,625 84.5% N/A
2000[6] 1 15 433,459 54,182 76.8% N/A
2001[7] 5 11 474,844 59,356 84.1% N/A
2002[7] 8 8 494,973 61,872 87.7% N/A
2003[7] 4 12 419,151 52,394 74.3% N/A
2004[7] 12 4 485,462 60,683 86.0% 4
2005[7] 9 7 529,916 66,240 93.9% 0
2006[7] 14 2 531,031 66,379 94.1% 0
2007[7] 11 5 524,019 65,502 92.8% 0
2008[7] 8 8 545,107 68,138 96.6% 0
2009[7] 13 3 540,345 67,543 95.7% 0
2010[7] 9 7 524,241 65,530 92.9% 3
2011[7] 8 8 523,143 65,393 92.7% 2
2012[7] 7 9 479,716 59,965 85.0% 4
Total 122 118 6,071,948 63,249 89.6%
Bad 15 49 1,804,172 56,380 79.9%
Meh 57 55 3,574,095 63,823 90.5%
Good 50 14 2,080,857 65,027 92.2%
  • Over the last 15 years, the distribution of Bad, Meh, and Good seasons is very balanced. The Chargers posted 4 "Bad" years, 7 "Meh" years, and 4 "Good" years, with an overall record of 122-118.
  • According to these statistics, the San Diego Market overperforms the NFL "percent of market attendance" average, even when the team is BAD (i.e. losing double-digit games and being quarterbacked by Ryan Leaf).
  • The average attendance per game over the last 15 years is 63,249 - 89.6% of capacity.
  • The lowest average attendance was in 2003 at 54,394 - 74.3% of capacity.
  • The highest average attendance was in 2008 at 68,138 - 96.6% of capacity.
  • There were no blackouts prior to the 2004 season, due to the "Ticket Guarantee." There have been 13 total since the 2004 season. No blackouts occurred from 2005-2009.

Based on these numbers, a 63,000 seat stadium appears to be solid starting point. Ironically, this was about the capacity of then-Jack Murphy Stadium before the expansion. And remember, Mr. Fabiani said the Chargers wanted a 62,000 seat facility (87.8% of the current 70,561 total at Qualcomm).

Going with the idea of proportional downsizing (87.8%), that would leave us with the following:

  • Total Attendance: 62,000
  • Club Seats: 6,922
  • Luxury Boxes: 98 - total capacity of 1,960.
  • General Admission Seating: 53,118

If there's truly a 2.5% gap between the General Admission total and the Blackout Number, the Blackout Number would be 51,790.

On the other hand, the Chargers might well want to retain a higher number of premium seating, as this is revenue they get to keep for themselves. If they kept the premium seating levels the same, here's what you'd get.

  • Total Attendance: 62,000
  • Club Seats: 7,844
  • Luxury Boxes: 112 - total capacity of 2,200.
  • General Admission Seating: 51,916
  • 2.5% Blackout Gap: 50,619.

Wrapping Up

For whatever mistakes the Spanos family has made over the years, proposing a smaller stadium is not one of them.

In fact, proposing a smaller stadium is one of their best ideas.

Based on a brief look at the numbers, it certainly appears the Chargers are on the right track in building a stadium with a fixed capacity of 62,000. This would lower the blackout number by at least 3,500 seats, and maybe as much as 6,000 seats. It also reduces the pressure on the San Diego market to outperform other NFL cities.

The next step is getting a plan together for public review, hopefully including artist renderings. Ideally, this facility will have more fans closer to the field, allowing the Chargers to improve their potential impact on home games, and improve the overall game day experience.


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