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No, there weren’t 50,000 people at the Riverfest Willie Nelson concert Saturday night.
I was there, man.
It was about 20,000 if we’re being really generous.
I don’t enjoy busting Riverfest’s bubble, because it was a great concert and at age 89, it was very cool to see ole Willie being able to perform at all, much less at the level he did.
So thanks for bringing him here. Seeing him play live was a bucket-list concert experience for me and probably a lot of other people there as well.
But when I saw the crowd estimate from the Riverfest of 50,000 in attendance, my immediate reaction was “C’mon, man!” because it was so far over the top.
A Riverfest spokesperson said they got that estimate from police. Police say it didn’t come from them — unless it was from an officer making a personal guess.
This is par for the course.
I’ve covered events in this town for 23 years and it’s been my experience that Wichita either deliberately inflates its crowds for hype value, or we just can’t count.
At the last pre-pandemic Riverfest in 2019, management claimed 35,000 showed up for a concert by the ska-punk band “Sublime with Rome” and another 20,000 for the “Gypsy punk” band “Gogol Bordello.” Are there that many punk fans in Wichita? I’m guessing not.
But back to Willie Nelson and Saturday night.
The concert took place at the Kennedy Plaza on the north side of Century II.
It’s simply not a big enough space for the number of people that Riverfest claims were there.
If you ever want to see how many people can fit into a given outdoor space for a big event, there’s a nifty online tool for that at www.mapchecking.com.
You outline a space on Google Maps, and then it tells you how many people can fit in it at “light,” “crowded” and “packed.”
In this case, I drew the crowd boundaries from the front of the stage to the sidewalk north of Douglas on the north, out to Water Street on the east and around the curve of the Century II on the south.
That was a little larger than the concert area actually was, which I know because I bought a $6 Michelob Ultra 10 minutes before Willie took the stage, at a beer tent all the way at the back of crowd, where there was plenty of walking-around space out to Water Street
Even with computers, there is some art to crowd estimation, because you have to eyeball the density of the crowd, which in the case of concerts varies widely by the distance from the stage.
This concert was no exception, It was more or less standing-room only at the front.
From about a quarter of the way back, where I was, it was lawn chairs in rows.
At the very back, there was plenty of room to walk around from food trailer to food trailer.
At light density, one person per square meter, the tool gives an estimate of 9,128 people in the space.
At “crowded,” about 2.4 people per square meter, the estimate reaches 22,000.
The one thing I can tell you with certainty is it was not 50,000.
It’s physically impossible to cram that many bodies into the boundaries.
Even at the upper-limit density on mapchecker, five people per square meter, the max the space could hold would be about 43,000.
That’s basically shoulder to shoulder, backside to bellybutton, with no space for thousands of lawn chairs, food trucks and trailers, beer and sound tents, flower beds, fountains or any other dead space.
And anything above five people per square meter is British-soccer-mayhem danger-level density, where you can’t even shuffle your feet and people start passing out.
Sorry Willie. Wichita loves you, but we don’t love you that much.