MacAdam: Crunching numbers on limited Spa attendance

UAlbany math professor was asked to calculate COVID-capacity; fans won't like the answer
Patrons crowd up against the rail on closing day of the 2019 Saratoga Race Course meet.
Patrons crowd up against the rail on closing day of the 2019 Saratoga Race Course meet.

People are freaking out, man.

Losing their manure over the prospect that fans won’t be allowed through the gates for the Saratoga Race Course meet, set to begin on July 16, less than six short weeks from now, because of the pandemic.

Forget the fans for a second, trainer Bill Mott said on Thursday that even his owners, who include very rich people who are used to getting their way, are “on edge” and “panicking” that they won’t be allowed on the grounds to see their horses run in person.

Short of a full-bore opening of Saratoga, with its box seats, 18 clubhouse and grandstand sections, The Stretch, 1863 Club, various bars and restaurants and gazillion picnic tables, there has been speculation over what would be a suitable number of people to let in there, while observing all health and safety guidelines.

Five thousand? Why not 8,000?

My math guy (that’s right, I have a math guy now) has bad news — and numbers — for these people.

Try 2,500. That’s a great day at Aqueduct … and a ghost town at Saratoga. Dr. Matt Zaremsky’s calculation, based on the six-foot social-distancing standard, subsequently came with some amendments that make the situation not seem nearly so dire, but we’ll get to those later.

In the meantime, we thought it would be a fun exercise to bounce a few Capital Region venues his way and see what crowd admission numbers would squeeze out of the other end of the sausage maker, after the UAlbany assistant professor of mathematics had been enlisted by an online magazine to do the same for The Horseshoe, the Buckeyes’ massive Ohio Stadium.

They can cram 105,000 into that joint, and a few weeks ago Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said if they were going to observe CDC and local restrictions, the school could still put 20,000-22,000 people in the seats for a football game. That doesn’t sound too bad, right?


MEL magazine, devoted to lifestyle and culture issues, asked Dr. Zaremsky whether 20,000 in a 105-seat stadium was feasible, if everyone is maintaining the six-foot gap between each other, in all directions.

He estimated that, under normal seating circumstances in a full Ohio Stadium, you could count 20 people within six feet of you. Using the laws of uniform density, he extrapolated that one “bubble,” a person with a six-foot radius devoid of any other people under pandemic rules, would allow for only 5,250 fans, or 1/20th of The Horsehoe’s normal capacity.

That number of fans rattling around that stadium sounds pretty meager.

Before I talked to Dr. Zaremsky, I looked up the laws of uniform density, and the Wikipedia entry function-of-x-ed my can up the Slide Rule River. So I asked him to explain it. (“They [MEL] link to some really complicated Wikipedia page,” he admitted.)

“If you look at the ocean, any points, let’s say, 10 feet below the surface, the water’s probably the same density there as anywhere on earth,” Dr. Zaremsky said. “Of course, it gets denser the farther down you go because of pressure, but the word ‘uniform’ there means constant or the same.

“And I figured the OSU stadium is so huge that, technically, what’s the density of people in the tiny little gap between people? Well, I guess it’s zero, because there’s zero people right there. But on a large scale, the density of people per square foot would basically be uniform anywhere in the stadium. It’s not like the west half of the stadium has way more people packed in than the east half.”

So using the 1/20th COVID-capacity gauge, 4,500-seat Joe Bruno Stadium would hold just 225 people. That’s about three hot dog eating contests worth of wieners for Joey Chestnut.

Casey Stadium, where the UAlbany Great Danes play football, lacrosse and soccer, holds 8,500. Not anymore. If you’re ticket holder No. 426, we’re sorry. You can’t come in.

Capacity at Saratoga ain’t so easy to figure, since you’re talking about such a wide variety of means of attendance, many of which don’t include an actual seat. If you’ve seen a guy there with a beer and a stack of past performances on a flat-top garbage can for a desk, that might’ve been me.

So Saratoga is complicated. The number that was used for our little exercise was 50,000, since that’s the cap the New York Racing Association uses for big days, like the Travers.

Divided by 20, that’s 2,500.

Dr. Zaremsky amended his initial divisor from the MEL article to 13.6, to account for the likelihood that many people would attend with a family member they were reasonably safe to sit next to, expanding the “bubble” about another foot in all directions, but also putting two people in it instead of one.

Sooo … that allows for an additional 1,176 souls, for a grand total of 3,676.

This is all quite absurd, of course. (Remember when I said this was supposed to be fun?)

And Dr. Zaremsky, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2011, will be the first to admit it. After all, the Ohio State article wasn’t his first rodeo with MEL magazine. An old friend of his works there and recruited him to chime in on some other topics, too, like how plausible would it have been for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have made the leap depicted in the promotional poster for the movie “Skyscraper.”

“Like, this crazy, impossible jump, and so he had me estimate how fast would he have to be running,” Zaremsky said with a laugh. “Twenty-two miles an hour, I think it was.

“Then Dwayne Johnson himself tweeted it out … ‘Look at this article.'”

Problems like these are multi-factorial, too. For instance, you can’t treat the seating at Ohio Stadium like a two-dimensional geometric shape and base your uniformity and density off that, because the seating, of course, slopes upward, adding a third dimension and thus affecting what, exactly, constitutes six feet of distancing.

Dr. Zaremsky has been at UAlbany for three years, but has never been to Casey Stadium — had never even heard of it, until I brought it up —  and admits he’s not 100% sure where it even is on the sprawling uptown campus.

“I guess I’ve seen it,” he said with a laugh.

“Any of this mathematical stuff, it’s abstract, and none of it’s particularly practical. I say, ‘Oh, you have to reduce capacity by 20,’ but I don’t actually know that. I don’t know the intricate details. Maybe the fact that some of the seats go higher up, I didn’t even account for that.”


To quote Chevy Chase as President Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, fielding a budget-related question during a debate:

“It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

Reach Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: -Sports-

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