When ABC hosts Matt O’Donnell and Karen Rogers took to the Atlantic City Boardwalk for the Miss America Show Us Your Shoes Parade, it wasn’t long before the pair declared that more than 200,000 people were packed on the wooden walkway.
“Wish you could be here, but I don’t know if we could fit you because there’s so many people here,” O’Donnell told the television audience.
Official crowd estimates — the only ones done for the parade — came in at 225,000 from Atlantic City’s Department of Emergency Management.
Still, traffic counts on the Atlantic City Expressway in both directions through the Pleasantville toll plaza showed a minimal 2.4 percent increase Sept. 14, even with two other major events — the Atlantic City Seafood Festival and the Atlantic City International Triathlon — in town. And while the Boardwalk was crowded, parade organizers didn’t sell out the 30,000 reserved seats lining the parade route.
Disagreements over crowd estimates aren’t new or unique to Atlantic City. Large-scale events all over the country have drawn disagreements, but perhaps none was more publicized than 1995’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C., when the National Park Service estimated 400,000 people attended. Organizers sued, other experts were commissioned and crowd estimates more than doubled.
No one disputes that Atlantic City’s Boardwalk wasn’t full for the Miss America parade. Only the question of how full it was remains for some.
Even if all of the paid seats were filled along with a number of rolling chairs offering VIP seating, the ratio of those standing to those seated in chairs would have been nearly seven to one, said Anthony Marino, a former statistician for the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
“Given the limiting space factors cited above, a post-parade analysis of video and photo all along the parade route will clearly demonstrate that the 225,000 number is an extreme embellishment,” Marino wrote in a guest column to The Press of Atlantic City, insisting that the crowd count was closer to between 60,000 and 80,000.
Tom Foley, the city’s emergency management director who provided the figures, said he stands by his estimate provided to The Press of Atlantic City and other media outlets the night of Sept. 14. That estimate is being used across countless publications. The Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing group, released a statement to the media in the days following the Miss America Competition, citing a parade crowd count of more than 200,000 as one of the signs that the events had been a success.
Foley said his department uses the same grid analysis employed nationally to estimate crowd size. From a high vantage point on top of the casinos, officials scan the crowd and create visual grid squares, estimating there is a person every 4 to 5 square feet. It’s that same formula city emergency management officials use when estimating the crowd for the Atlantic City Airshow. For that event, crowd estimates have multiplied from 200,000 in 2003 to more than 1 million in 2012.
“With the Miss America parade, it’s a lot of locals. The people in Brigantine out to Longport don’t use the expressway, neither does a lot of the mainland that comes in on the White Horse or Black Horse pikes,” Foley said. “That means you don’t have big increases in expressway traffic for these events.”
Still, Foley said, one thing could make crowd estimation easier: a turnstile counting those who enter.
“It’s just never going to happen on the Boardwalk,” Foley said. “But that would be the easiest way to count.”
Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Research, agreed. Unless the event is ticketed, there’s no reliable way to know how many people attended, he said.
“It’s just a guess,” Perniciaro said, stressing that in many ways total crowd count doesn’t matter when estimating some of the factors that really matter for the resort.
Spending patterns as an indicator of economic impact should be measured based on the number of people at an event who wouldn’t have otherwise been in the area, he said.
Perniciaro has completed economic impact studies for the Greater Atlantic City Chamber following the airshows. For those studies, he begins with a crowd estimate provided by organizers. He then whittles down that number by applying a formula used by the International Council of Air Shows, assuming how many people generally attend an airshow who aren’t from the area. That number is then decreased again as he subtracts the number of people who would ordinarily be in Atlantic City on the particular day of the week in the month the event took place.
In response to the Million Man March flap, Congress banned U.S. Park Police from publicizing crowd estimates for demonstrations. As a result, the Park Service still does not provide estimates for events, a spokesperson for the department said.
Clark McPhail, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois, has been studying crowds since the 1960s. Asked why large events often draw conflicting estimates, McPhail pointed to a 2004 article he wrote with a colleague for the American Sociological Association.
“Disagreements about the size of demonstrations are an inevitable consequence of what challenges are intended to symbolize. Organizers want to show the strength of their challenge, and sometimes police and journalists want to deflate their importance,” he wrote. “The best estimates of demonstration sizes, however, will never end these disputes, as the conflict over the Million Man March so clearly illustrates.”
McPhail pointed out in his research that the dispute over crowd size in the Million Man March diminished the fact that, even with the National Park Service estimate of 400,000, the event would have been successful.
“The dispute dragged on for weeks, obscuring the fact that the march had been one of the largest mass protests ever held in Washington,” he wrote.
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