A Rocky Mountain Hi - September, 2005
by John Van Ness
If you think that the use of 10 and 3 starting times for main events at last summer’s Atlanta NABC was a success, or that those starting times were decided upon after thorough research by the ACBL’s highly qualified staff and Board of Directors, or that the concept has been endorsed by the ACBL as the wave of the future, or that it is even a good idea, please guess again.
The real story is that the ACBL Board never specifically decreed a 10 and 3 schedule for Atlanta . A few years ago they simply voted that if the local committee for an NABC preferred those starting times, it would automatically be okay without further approval from the ACBL Board. After several years of nobody taking the offer, Atlanta’s local committee said “yes”, and the deal was done. There was no need for any research or any further discussion.
The obvious attraction for the local players was that 10 and 3 starting times enabled them to avoid the worst of the commuter rush hour traffic, and they could be safely home before dark. There was no need to stick around for dinner at the hotel and there was no need to buy a hotel room.
But the Atlanta people didn’t have to worry about losing attendance, losing hotel revenue, or the tournament losing money. Somebody else was picking up the tab.
The result of the experiment was headlines boasting that Atlanta’s attendance of 13,423 tables was “above predictions”. But what should those expectations have been?
The Atlanta area is the number one hotbed of tournament activity in the ACBL. Atlanta regionals are the fourth largest, its sectionals are second only to Las Vegas, and the big “G”, Gatlinburg (9,095 tables), is just a few hours up the road. One would certainly expect that Atlanta would do better than the average summer NABC for the past five years, which were held in bridge markets less than half their size (as measured by usual tournament table-count). Not so.
How close did Atlanta come to the record for Summer NABC’s? A mere 10,798 tables short of 24,221 in Las Vegas in 1991.
[News item: Just a few months after the Atlanta Experiment the ACBL is proposing raising NABC entry fees $1.50 per person per session. Entry fees for NABC regional events are already $14.00. District 17 charges $9.50, which will increase to $10.00 in 2006.]
Instead of using the players in Atlanta as subjects of an experiment, the ACBL might have saved everybody a lot of trouble by simply examining the experiences of those districts that have been testing 10 and 3 for about a decade.
My research, possibly incomplete, has identified six areas of the country where 10 and 3 scheduling for main events has been tried in recent years:
The three Los Angeles regionals have lost 32.9% of their attendance since switching to 10 and 3 in 1999. In District 22, three regionals tried and immediately died (San Bernardino, Ontario, Fresno), one tried, saw attendance drop 20%, and immediately quit (San Diego, 1998), and there are two successes. (Palm Springs, Costa Mesa). Palm Springs has used 10 and 3 for years, and is a spectacular success, with this year’s attendance expected to exceed 3,000. But nobody can measure with any certainty whether this success is because of 10 and 3 or despite it.
Thus, the Southern California scoreboard shows nine attempts, two hits, and seven errors.
In 2003 Biloxi, MS (temporarily side-lined) switched from 10 and 3 back to 1 and 7:30 and has seen attendance climb 35% over the last 3 years. Tunica, MS, 10 and 3 throughout, is up 3% over the same period. It is also used at Hot Springs, AR, which is not an annual regional.
Mesa switched to 10 and 3 in 1995. Attendance immediately dropped 20.4%, and declined a total of 35% until a recent recovery. Two years ago Mesa went from a four-day regional to six, and it is still among the 20 largest regionals in the ACBL. But we’ll never know what might have been.
Lake Geneva, WI has experimented back and forth with 10 and 3 over the past few years, and currently is back to 1 and 7:30.
Monterey, CA tried 10 and 3 in 1998 and immediately went back. Monterey attendance since then has grown 29%.
In addition to 10 and 3 almost always decreasing attendance, tournaments also
have to worry about its deleterious effect on hotel revenues. Hotels are not
particularly interested in a group that mostly goes home at 6:30 p.m. instead of
buying dinner and hotel rooms---unless they are willing to pay exorbitant rent for
In most cases, hotel contracts require the tournament to guarantee a minimum number of room-nights, and if those rooms are not filled, tournaments have faced penalties in the five to ten thousand dollar range. Guess who pays in the end?
In 2005, 75.5% of District 17’s regional attendance came from visitors, and they are the ones that filled most of the hotel rooms. Players from out of town are especially crucial for the success of regionals in District 17, since we don’t have the huge population bases found in many other areas of the country. We cannot afford to limit our market to locals only.
Generally, 10 and 3 seems to be favored most by local players who are content with playing two sessions a day as long as they can be home before dark without having to spend much money at the host hotel. On the other hand, visitors come to play as much bridge as possible, and are less than thrilled with little or no bridge action at night and being left sitting in their hotel room watching TV. There are many other regionals for visitors to choose from, and they can easily take their money elsewhere.
Starting times are not the only ingredient of a successful regional, nor the only cause of a flop. One cannot underestimate the effect of excellent planning, playing site, promotion, and performance. In a few instances starting times don’t seem to make much of a difference in attendance, but in most cases, the change in table-count when somebody switches is clear and dramatic. And as best I can determine, every single time a regional has switched from 10 and 3 back to traditional times attendance has immediately increased.
In the case of the two or three regionals that are successful with 10 and 3 scheduling, one simply cannot determine with certainty whether this success is because of 10 and 3 or despite it. (And the same would be true for successful regionals using traditional starting times.) The only time we can tell for sure is when someone switches. Gatlinburg: do we have a volunteer?
All in all, the statistical evidence demonstrates a strong case, beyond mere coincidence, that most of the time in most locations 10 and 3 reduces attendance and hotel revenues. You can certainly get lucky, but the odds (5 to 1?) are heavily against a regional successfully changing to 10 and 3 scheduling.
You might ask what is wrong with smaller regionals? Smaller events with smaller masterpoints, less events on the schedule from which to choose, the good possibility of a lesser playing site with higher costs, and less money available for player amenities. In the end everybody loses, locals and visitors alike.
The correct question is not only do you prefer 10 and 3, but are you also willing to pay the likely price?
John Van Ness 11/8/05
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