What does 450,000 mean?: UCI weighs in on their oft-misunderstood figure

Many of us have been envisioning a half million visitors to our city, which has a population of about half that. The truth is…out there somewhere. And, while still impressive, the number is much smaller than we anticipate.

The UCI World Championships are certainly going to impact our individual lives and probably our collective future as a city. But how much?

The numbers have been confusing. Our piece on accommodating all the people cited the oft-bandied-about “450,000” number that was originally published by UCI itself. Almost instantly, we got hit with plenty of corrections (as did other media outlets who published the figure).

It’s a huge number–almost a half million. Trying to wrap our heads around Richmond’s population tripling for nine days is almost barf-inducing, but the actual number of people alighting upon our little city is much, much smaller.

Here’s how 450,000 breaks down:

  • The number was arrived at during an impact study with Chmura and refers to a cumulative amount of spectators over the course of the nine days.
  • Spectators is not the same as visitors to the race’s environs (aka RVA)
  • In fact, spectators also includes Richmonders, who are estimated to make up 45% of that number
  • In an additional fact, the cumulative-ness of it all means that each day’s spectators are counted, even if they are the same person. If you show up to each day of the race, you will be counted nine times.
  • The amount of people visiting and spectating is expected to ebb and flow, culminating in a pretty crowded last weekend

Various mathematical equations will bring you various estimates–since out-of-towners are expected to stay an average of six nights and make up 55% of that 450,000, you could say there might be around 40,000 visitors total. Or you could be alarmist/conservative (depending on how you feel) and assume everyone will only stay one night, which brings the estimate significantly higher. Or assume they all stay all nine days, and it’s lower.

The reality is that there’s just no way to know–the race hasn’t been held in the U.S. in three decades. Other countries prioritize cycling more, but it’s also more commonplace, so their attendance may or may not be applicable comparisons. Last year’s Worlds, held in Ponferrada, Spain, which was unable to recoup its expenditures (although the official report won’t be available until the fall), was 75 miles away from a city of any remarkable size.

By a very tenuous comparison, the Amgen Tour of California, which just wrapped up this week, was expected to bring as many as 50,000 spectators to Sacramento, one stop on the tour. That’s an easier number to predict and measure, as each city along the route can count as one isolated event.

Richmond’s nearish neighbors are some of the nation’s largest cities: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Atlanta…there’s just no telling how many of them will be motivated to pack up the station wagon and head to our hamlet. Hamilton, Canada–site of the Worlds in 2003–is the closest comparison, metro-wise, but existed before social media had taken off. Cycling as a sport is miles ahead of where it was then, with technology making it possible for more people to get into the Tour de France and similar events and with cycling becoming more popular in terms of competitive sports, methods of exercise, and commuter options.

The folks behind Richmond 2015–the shorthand for this specific Worlds–wants us to think of this more as a global event, like the Olympics. “A good local analogy to use is the Folk Festival,” says Lee Kallman, VP of Marketing and Business Development for Richmond 2015. “What percentage of people go to the Folk Festival because they’re hardcore fans of folk music? My unscientific assumption says it’s a low number. But people go because it’s fun.”

Kallman and his colleagues have a tough job. They’ve got to convince us that this whole thing will be worth all the money the city’s spent on securing the gig as well as infrastructure improvements–that’s when “450,000” sounds awesome. But they’ve also got to convince us that this whole thing will be worth the possible inconvenience–that’s when “450,000” makes us all audibly gulp and furiously search for flights to anywhere, anywhere at all.

Detractors have been skeptical about the values of the study as we all try to grasp for something concrete. Kallman believes that concreteness just doesn’t exist–beyond accepting that it will be crowded in varying amounts. “There’s no guarantee associated with economic impact, there’s projections. And somebody will say “But how big is this?” Talking locally, there’s similarities to things like the Folk Festival and things like the 10k. You could take bits and pieces of all these events and magnify it further–to have a study like this done, it’s to give you a better sense [using that data].”

Paul Shanks, Director of Communications and Digital Marketing, points out that countless hours of planning of gone into the race over the last few years. After the collegiate championships last fall (which had about 10,000 spectators on its final day–a big number for that event, no matter where it takes place), the planned course for Worlds was altered to decrease the circle of suck for the rest of us. The James Center area will no longer be shut off from the Downtown Expressway.

And Kallman and Shanks would certainly take issue to “circle of suck,” (sorry, guys) as one of their big tasks has been to alter public perception from thinking “ugh” to “what a fun, once-in-a-lifetime event this is for us.” And they’ve got a point. The planning of a wedding is Suck City, but the actual event is something you’ll remember forever (hopefully as one of the best nights of your life).

Much of Richmond 2015’s messaging has to do with convincing us to stay in town and enjoy ourselves, but the impact could stretch on forever. “One of the things that study couldn’t capture is the overall exposure. We’re going to have this race broadcast on television to 300 million-plus. That kind of global exposure–you can’t put a dollar amount to it. Millions of people around the world will get a nine-day visual postcard of what Richmond is,” says Paul Shanks.

Think about it this way: Had you ever heard of Sochi before the 2014 Winter Olympics?

Of course, we better not mess things up in a royal, Tweetable way. (Did you come away from the Olympics planning to visit Sochi? Yikes.)

We simply won’t know hard data about the Big Bike Race™ until it’s actually here, but Richmond 2015 hopes our rewards–particularly if we hang in there during the race itself–will be greater than our investments of money and frustration. In the meantime, it’s safe to say that we should prepare ourselves for exposure,1 and lots of it.

Photo by: Sue Jackson

  1. Who wants to start a drinking game for how often we’re called “Former Capital of the Confederacy.” 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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