The Size of a Pop Culture Event Depends on How You Count
This year  ReedPop’s New York Comic Con reportedly reached a new record high attendance: 200,000. However, it’s difficult to know the actual size of the event relative to other fan conventions — or even to the previous year’s New York Comic Con — due to vagaries in how attendance is counted.
New York Comic Con is unquestionably huge. Several years ago the annual fan fest outgrew the confines of the Javits Center and now hosts additional programming sessions in the Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Hudson Mercantile.
The Javits seemed particularly crowded this year due, at least in part, by having less available floor space than in past years. Javits North, traditionally the site of Artist Alley, was closed due to construction, forcing the show’s artists to relocate from the 80,000 square foot hall to the 45,000 sq ft. room 1E on the ground floor, a space used for vendor exhibits in the previous year.
Ways to Count
While fan festivals both large and small routinely report specific attendance numbers, what they mean is less clear. There is no industry standard for attendance calculations at pop culture conventions. In practice, at least three methods are used:
(1) Counting unique individuals, where each person counts as one attendee, regardless of the number of tickets they hold or days they attend.
(2) Counting the number of tickets sold (whether for a single day or multiple days)
(3) Counting the number of people who enter each day and totaling it for all the days of the event.
For example: An individual with two single-day tickets (say, one for Friday and one for Saturday), would count as one attendee using the first approach and two using the second and third. On the other hand, someone with a single four-day ticket would count as one attendee using the first and second methods, but four using the third.
The third method is sometimes referred to as a “turnstile” count, although this term introduces an additional confusion. Most events allow you to leave and return later the same day, so an actual count of the number of turnstile entrances would further inflate the number, making this a potential fourth method of counting attendance (although I know of no event that actually uses this approach).
Which Con Uses Which Numbers?
When a convention reports attendance figures, it’s often not clear which method is being used. All these approaches are valid, but they’re different, making comparisons fraught with uncertainty.
San Diego Comic-Con reportedly uses the most conservative approach: a count of unique individuals, regardless of the number of days each person attends. Comic-Con International, which hosts the San Diego event, uses a Member ID system that allows them track the number of tickets or passes given to each individual. The attendance at San Diego Comic-Con has been capped by space constraints for several years and is reported to be around 130,000.
When New York Comic Con proclaimed a significantly higher number — 151,000 — in 2014, it sparked a flurry of articles breathlessly reporting that ReedPop’s event had surpassed the Comic-Con International convention. The confusion was compounded by ReedPop’s identifying the number as a “unique attendee” count. Reporting by the SDCC Unofficial Blog, however, clarified that ReedPop was counting tickets sold (using method 2, above) not unique individuals (method 1). Although ReedPop introduced a Fan Verification system linked to RFID badges in 2016 that could allow them to track individual attendance, given the steady increase in the numbers, it seems unlikely they have switched to a more conservative method of reporting attendance.
The key takeaway is that comparing attendance figures from events run by different organizations — Comic-Con International (San Diego Comic-Con and Wondercon), ReedPop (New York Comic Con, Chicago’s C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con), Wizard World (events in dozens of cities) or others — is highly dubious.
Assuming the method for each event remains the same, however, at least year-over-year increases could provide a reasonable proxy for the relative growth of a single event. Alas, this year New York Comic Con — which, remember, tallies the number of tickets sold — changed their ticket sales policy to no longer offer a four-day ticket. People were able to attend all four days only by buying four single-day tickets. Thus, even with the same number of attendees, the number of tickets sold would be expected to increase irrespective of any growth in attendance.
New York Comic Con and Comic-Con International: San Diego are both enormous pop culture events, with an broad array of activities and large numbers of attendees. Until the industry adopts a standard accounting method, however, the relative size of each will remain obscure.
Update 2017 Nov 22: In an interview with ICv2, ReedPOP Global Head Lance Fensterman cited New York Comic Con 2017 attendance as 220,000, as measured by the number of tickets sold (method 2, listed above). He acknowledged that the change from offering multiple-day tickets in previous years to only single-day tickets this year resulted in an increase in the ticket total. “In the old days when we had multi‑day tickets, if you bought a three‑day pass, that counted as one ticket sold,” Fensterman stated. “It was always that one ticket is counted as one whether it’s a three‑day, a four‑day, or a single‑day. It’s one ticket. The increase is really because we don’t have multi‑day tickets anymore so you have single days.”
When asked about comparison’s with the previous year, Fensterman said, “It was really the same number.” In fact, according to Fensterman, “it was slightly less people per day,” due to the change in how tickets were sold and the loss of space in the convention hall due to construction.
Update 2018 Oct 03: As this year’s New York Comic Con approaches, the event has announced it expects a 2018 attendee count of 250,000. It appears ReedPop has further expanded its method of counting attendance, however, making historical comparisons problematic.
Speaking with Rob Salkowitz for Forbes, ReedPop’s Event Director for North America Mike Armstrong cited the expected attendance number, explaining it includes “anybody who will interact with a NYCC brand – NYCC or Anime Fest, as well as all the ticketed events over the weekend.” In addition to counting individual tickets at two shows — New York Comic Con and Anime Fest — this year’s tally will include additional events hosted by ReedPop held in conjunction with the two cons. While this is a reasonable indicator of ReedPop’s total impact, it makes comparisons with pop culture events run by different organizations unclear.
For a full rundown of 2017 New York Comic Con, see: “New York Comic Con 2017: Recap and Photo Highlights.”