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Unskew the Cubs

There’s no way 5 million went to their World Series parade

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Getty Images

Last week, as you’ve heard, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought in American sports history. It was a once-in-a-lifetime story line combined with a once-in-a-lifetime seven-game playoff series, as well as a huge breakthrough in the field of porcine aviation.

Chicago then proceeded to throw the party of a lifetime — two lifetimes, really, considering not many people live to 108. Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, and on Friday, the city held a championship parade many thought would never happen. According to Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, 5 million people attended the parade.

Five million people! Five million! That number would make this the largest sports celebration ever, and one of the top five largest gatherings for a purpose besides war or religion in the history of the human race. (You could argue the Cubs are a religion, but you know what I mean.)

Of course, there probably weren’t 5 million people at that parade. The population of Chicago is 2.7 million. Yes, its metropolitan area boasts 10 million residents, and Cubs nation stretches from Indiana to Iowa. Surely, scores of fans from out of town wanted to see the parade. But 5 million?! That’s the entire population of Chicago in one place, plus another sum of people nearly totaling the entire population of Chicago.

Chicago is not the first city to claim enormous parade attendance. Cleveland claimed 1.3 million people attended the Cavaliers’ championship celebration, about a million more than live in Cleveland proper. Kansas City claimed 800,000 attendees at the Royals’ parade, twice as many as live in Kansas City, Missouri. Denver claimed a million were at the Broncos’ parade in February, larger than the city’s total population of about 650,000. There were an estimated 3.2 million people at the Red Sox’s championship parade in 2004, a celebration ending a Cubsesque drought, although the Boston Police Department later said that a million-person crowd at the Bruins’ 2011 parade was the largest in city history. For what it’s worth, Boston’s population is less than 700,000.

And Chicago has posted big numbers before, too. The city claimed 2 million for the Blackhawks parade in 2015, and 1.2 million for the White Sox parade in 2005.

My estimate, however, is that all these numbers are wrong.

It’s Hard to Measure Crowd Sizes

It’s very easy to figure out how many people go to a game. Teams sell tickets, and they can count how many tickets they sold. Or, they can count how many people scan barcodes of tickets. Even if the event is unticketed, turnstiles can often track how many people enter a venue.

Getty Images
Getty Images

A public rally is an entirely different organism. Anybody can show up, and there are thousands of methods of entry. The best way to count crowds at a large public event is Jacobs’s Method. It’s basically the educated guesswork of a University of California–Berkeley journalism professor, Herbert Jacobs, who curiously watched anti–Vietnam War protesters in the courtyard outside of his office and wondered how many of them there were. The yard was divided into squares, so he would estimate how many people were in one square, and then multiply that by the amount of squares to determine his crowd estimate. He also learned that in an intensely packed crowd, an average person occupies 2.5 square feet.

It’s 2016, and there’s still no iPhone app for estimating crowd size. As Rob Goodier wrote in Popular Mechanics in 2011, we still rely on Jacobs’s strategy. Even with aerial pictures, the best method of calculating the size of a crowd relies on estimating the amount of people in an area, then multiplying that by the number of areas in a given crowd.

Obviously, there are problems with this. Perhaps not every area in a crowd has the same density of people. If we use the most populated area of a crowd as our base point, we’ll far overestimate the crowd size. But this semi-scientific method is all we have. Actually attempting to count the amount of people in a crowd would be an enormous waste. It would take eons, and since people don’t stay still, it would be as pointless as counting grains of sand on a beach.

The People Who Count Have Incentive to Embellish

Virtually every academic who studies crowd sizes emphasizes that the people counting often have ulterior motives for their numbers. Here are three separate experts:

Getty Images
Getty Images

Arizona State professor Steve Doig: “In reality, estimating the size of crowds at mass public events is much more about public relations than a quest for truth.”

NYU professor Charles Seife: “Almost everyone who has tried to make a crowd estimate has a vested interest in what the outcome of the estimate is. … Whenever you see a crowd estimate, you have to wonder where it’s coming from.”

University of Chicago professor Stephen Stiegler: “Most people look at a crowd like that, and they say, ‘Boy, there are a lot of people there.’ Most people have no incentive to underestimate. If you’re in the business of crowd control, you want to brag about how much you’ve controlled. If you’re in the business of puffing up the Blackhawks, which don’t need any — they’re so great this year — then you aim for a big number.”

Large crowd sizes can boost civic pride, providing evidence to citizens that they’re the most passionate and best fans in the world. And there’s also the hope that it will instill confidence in a local government, who somehow put together a massive event with few hitches.

Independent investigations of crowd sizes at championship parades have generally found an overestimation on the city’s part. By calculating the square footage of the parade route and rally location, Kansas City radio station KCUR estimated that the 800,000-person Royals parade probably had closer to 500,000 attendees. Denver NBC affiliate KUSA did the same and used Jacobs’s 2.5-square-feet-per-person estimate to calculate a crowd of 700,000 at the Broncos’ 1-million-strong parade, although they played into the flawed logic of Jacobs’s Method by assuming every spot along the entire route had the highest possible density of attendees.

If Chicago’s estimate was as inaccurate as the Kansas City estimate, they were off by around 2 million.

I Mean, Just Think About It, Chicago

Outside of all the flaws inherent in crowd-size estimations, let’s think about all the reasons it is highly unlikely that 5 million people turned out for the Cubs.

The Cubs celebrate their 1932 pennant. (Getty Images)
The Cubs celebrate their 1932 pennant. (Getty Images)

Game 7 of the World Series set ratings records in Chicago, with a whopping 71 market share. That means that 71 percent of all televisions counted in the Chicago area were watching the game. It also means 29 percent of people watching TV during Game 7 of the World Series were watching something else.

We already know that roughly 30 percent of people watching TV in Chicago weren’t interested in watching the Cubs during the most important game they’ve ever played. You’d have to imagine an even higher percentage would be disinterested in leaving their house to stand in a large crowd for several hours.

We also know a lot of people in Chicago weren’t at the parade because they were watching on TV. More than 200,000 people watched WGN’s coverage of the parade, and plus more on ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN, or MLB Network.

Then there are the people in Chicago who aren’t natives. About a million people in Chicago were born outside of Illinois, half a million from other states and half a million from other countries. I’m sure many of these people came as Cubs fans, from places like Iowa and Indiana. And I’m sure others have adopted the team. But I’d have to imagine a large portion of out-of-towners and immigrants don’t follow the Cubs, and most of these probably didn’t go to the parade.

And then there are hundreds of thousands of senior citizens in Chicago, many of whom were probably unable to make it to the parade. And some people probably had jobs they couldn’t get out of. Even if a Cubs fan who really wanted to go to the parade managed to get the day off, there’s a pretty high chance somebody else had to fill in for them.

Perhaps some have forgotten this, but there are two baseball teams in Chicago, too. In my experience, White Sox fans don’t necessarily hate Cubs fans. I bet some were even happy for their fellow citizens who got to support a championship team. But they wouldn’t demean themselves by putting on a Cubs hat.

We know parade estimates are way off, so we can’t assume there were actually 1.2 million people at the White Sox parade in 2005. But there were probably hundreds of thousands who would rather eat a ketchup hot dog with a side of ketchup than show up to a Cubs parade. Maybe the city forgot the White Sox existed when claiming its entire population had gone to celebrate the Cubs. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Chicago’s government forgot to account for the South Side when making a civic decision.

For 5 million people to have attended the Cubs parade, almost the whole city would’ve had to go, plus an additional several million people from outside of city limits. But we also know that millions of Chicagoland residents were either unable to go to the parade, chose not to go to the parade, or just straight up don’t care about the Cubs.

I don’t know how many people were at the parade. Considering the popularity of the Cubs, the length of the parade route, the mass of humanity in Grant Park, and the likely overestimates by every other parade, I wouldn’t be surprised if last week’s parade was the biggest sports celebration of all time.

Except, saying 5 million people went is like saying Chicago had been waiting since 1743 for a Cubs title. You don’t need to exaggerate when the truth is as incredible as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.