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City of Sturgis Presents Cell-Phone Data Conflicting with DOT Rally Traffic Counts

The 2023 Sturgis Rally traffic count came in 8% below the previous five-year average. But the City of Sturgis is using new math to say they enjoyed the biggest Rally since 2015… although the numbers they give KELO-TV conflict with that claim:

During the 10-day rally, there were 617,000 visits, which is second only to the 75th Rally in 2015, Beka Zerbst, the president of the Sturgis City Council, said. The previous year saw 611,447 visits, 2021 had 700,295 visits and in 2020, only 549,747 arrived for the Sturgis Rally.

This year, the city used a new way of calculating Rally guests through people’s mobile devices. In previous years, Sturgis relied on Department of Transportation vehicle counters positioned on the interstate and highways for an attendance count.

“The numbers reflected one vehicle crossing the counter as traffic into Sturgis,” Zerbst said of the old tracking method. “One motorcycle could have two or more passengers or one car could have multiple passengers. Our new system collects data from an individual user’s cell phone” [Gracie Terrall, “2023 Sturgis Rally Summit Numbers Are In,” KELO-TV, updated 2023.10.25].

(Hey, Freedom-loving Rallygoers: did you give the Sturgis City Council permission to collect data from your phones to track your location?)

This year’s 617,000 visits are fewer than 2021’s 700,295, so did Zerbst mean to say this year’s visits were the third-best in the last eight years?

Second or third is still higher than what we get from looking at the Department of Transportation traffic counts, which showed fewer vehicle entrances into the Rally in 2023 than in each of the previous six years. The only way the city’s phone counts could square with the state’s vehicle counts is if Rallygoers carpooled/cyclepooled/camperpooled significantly more this year than in previous years and/or if they started carrying more phones. Dividing the city’s phone-based numbers with the state’s vehicle counts indicates that each vehicle entering the Rally in 2020 carried 1.19 phones, while each vehicle entering in 2023 carried 1.35 phones.

Whatever is happening in reality, industry analysts and entrepreneurs should read the Rally data carefully to make sure they don’t mix up the traffic and phone counts when they try to figure out just how many customers they may find in Sturgis during the busiest part of August.


  1. jkl 2023-10-26 07:02

    Does the exact number of people even matter? Isn’t it the number of sales and the economics driven by those sales? I would think those numbers would be more insightful to compare on a yearly basis.

  2. All Mammal 2023-10-26 07:36

    I thought they went by the tons of trash collected.

  3. Richard Schriever 2023-10-26 08:04

    I usually have two phones on me most of the time. One is a traditional smart phone. The other is in the watch on my wrist. They both answer to the same number. Necessary for my work as at times I walk off a mile or so from where my vehicle is (which is where I ALWAYS leave my much more expensive and easily destroyed phone. And don’t some vehicles have actual phones (not a blue tooth connectable device) built in? I know ELD (Electronic Logging Devices) have cell phones built in, as do CPAP machines (lots of older folks who the bikers are tending to have them).

  4. jkl 2023-10-26 11:06

    John Tsitrian, Thank you for the information..

  5. John Tsitrian 2023-10-26 11:38

    You’re welcome, jkl.

  6. John 2023-10-26 15:42

    All Mammal, good analysis. Sturgis ought to measure the relative changes in waste water flow. Sewage “counting” will yield a good indication of relative population changes and has the benefit of detecting substances.

    Frankly, it’s surprising that the SD policing, prosecutorial, prison industrial complex has mandated next to home sewage monitoring for substances. That makes as much sense as does the made-up crime of ingesting.

  7. grudznick 2023-10-26 19:46

    Mr. John has an idea, albeit perhaps economically infeasible. If towns started putting some sort of cheap chemical detectors where the sewage meters are, or where the pipes meet the main, they could flag houses where illicit substances are being consumed, or at least eliminated. Then, they could lurk outside those dwellings and follow the fellows who come out around until they made a rolling stop or forgot to use a blinker, then pull them over and BANGO you have caught a criminal, probably.

  8. Todd Epp 2023-10-26 20:06

    Ingesting and outgesting. The circle of life!

  9. RS 2023-10-26 20:35

    SD Administration reports $1.4 million in tax revenue from the Sturgis Rally and 617,000 rally goers those 10 days. Really? They only collected $2.27 sales tax from each rally goer. Must have at least 6% tax with tourism, bed and booze tax. Are they that cheap to only spend $38 while in the Hills. What did I get wrong here?

  10. grudznick 2023-10-26 20:51

    There is probably skimming or redirection, Mr. RS.

  11. Curt 2023-10-26 22:07

    Of course Mr John would have his finger on the pulse of the human excrement topic.

  12. All Mammal 2023-10-27 01:07

    There is no need to sniff more pee jugs. The 24-7 already has more jugs than they can sniff.

    Besides, I strongly suggest if the authorities have any spare time and/or resources on their hands, they needn’t be sniffing jugs of urine; they had better be putting eyes on each and every convicted child predator, each and every damn day. You know, to make certain that they’re not raping more people or any of their other illegal proclivities they are already known to have. Because the chances of more kids being harmed by convicted cho-mos is a much greater clear and present danger than some dude going off to work after tootin some ooga booger sugar. Priorities should start with kids, regardless of the fact they have no monies for the courts.

    Wouldn’t that be a much more effective use of law enforcement’s time and taxpayers’ dime? Besides, once waste makes it into the sewer, the integrity of the whiz is jeopardized.
    The integrity of whiz sniffers is kaput.

  13. Jet Johnson 2023-10-27 17:11

    I don’t think that Rally numbers are up. I live in Rapid City and compared to previous years, grocery stores were not ransacked during this rally. Traffic never got to be particularly unpleasant. It really didn’t seem like the Rally was even happening. Hope Sturgis is prepared for a post-rally economy. The entertainment is mediocre and young people (under the age of about 40) do not care about Harleys. I know that in SD, Harley is the preferred bike, even among the younger crowd–but nationwide, sales are floundering.

    Now I don’t really care about saving the Rally anyway. I know there is some degree of economic impact, but I believe that the DOR uses inflated number and sales tax figures to calculate economic impact in a misrepresentative capacity. Most of the dollars that are changing hands do not stay here. Out of state visitors spend a lot of money with out of state vendors. Which partly explains how Sturgis can still be such a dump despite attracting what is supposedly one of the most popular week-long tourist events in the country.

  14. P. Aitch 2023-10-27 17:56

    Most Popular Weeklong Tourist Events in USA
    1. Pride New York
    2. Burning Man
    3. New Orleans Mardi Gras
    4. Coachella
    5. EDC Music Festival
    6. Miami Formula One Grand Pris
    7. Bonnaroo Music Festival
    8. BottleRock Music Festival
    9. Cinco De Mayo
    10. New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
    – Intrepid

  15. Arlo Blundt 2023-10-27 18:12

    Jet–you are correct…the bars and other facilities built since the Rally caught on, look like a movie set, tacky and very temporary. The Rally, for all the noise and babble, wet-shirts and bacchanalia, has contributed little to the Sturgis community or its’ future.

  16. jkl 2023-10-27 19:27

    P. Aitch, what is your source for this list?

  17. PWK 2023-10-27 20:59

    The rally grapes will wither on the vine, as the boomer rebels fade away.

  18. John Kennedy Claussen 2023-10-28 00:12

    Here’s an interesting take on bike rallies throughout the country and the future of them:

    Believe it or not, I first went to Sturgis in ’74 with my parents. I was 13. We were on vacation to the Black Hills at the time, and because the Rally was going on, we decided to check-out Sturgis; and you could not help but notice more bikes on the road back then than most past trips to the BH that we had made, but back then you could still drive a car down Main Street in Sturgis during the Rally and all of the bikes were parked together on Main in the middle of the street for about two blocks long at best. Then, in 2012, I and my family of four checked-out the pre-week of the Sturgis Bike Rally before heading to Wyoming, and it was definitely a totally different world from my memories of ’74 (Which was also the week that Nixon resigned, I might add…. ;-) ). So, it isn’t fair to compare ’74 to ’12, but since then, my wife and I have been to Sturgis twice in recent years, 2018 and 2022. In ’18, we went to Sturgis to experience it as a bucket list sort of thing, then in ’22 we were there for the opening day and the final day as we made our way to Oregon and Washington and back, and let me just say that I sensed a difference between ’18 and ’22, and I also heard that the final weekend in ’22 never truly rebounded for businesses and vendors as it used to do.

    Now, out of fairness, I’m sure this year’s rain did not help Sturgis, but since the height of attendance in 2015, which was the 75th Anniversary of the Rally, I believe what is taking place is a gradual decline, which covid interrupted with a collapse in attendance that was then spunned as temporary, which then led to a post covid surge only to now rectify itself with a reality more in tune with the pre-covid downward trend, and I really don’t see the numbers getting better in the future either. IMO, Sturgis has become not a place to participate, but rather a place to watch, and when that happens then the heart of an event begins to collapse overtime, especially when you also take into account the aging population of those who make up most of the motorcycle world today.

    Frankly, I see a strange similarity between Sturgis and the once JazzFest in Sioux Falls, which is no more. Our local JazzFest started out simple and straight forward with acts which were jazz, but then overtime the atmosphere became more corporate with white tents and vendors, and music which was really not jazz at all, like Sheryl Crow. Today’s Sturgis is now going down that same path as it becomes too corporate with too many cars, too many lookers, to many t-shirt buyers, and too many concert goers who arrive in cars and not on bikes to stay.

  19. P. Aitch 2023-10-28 03:20

    Mr. Claussen recalls the Black Hills in ‘74. I’m a little older and remember the greatest party the Hills had ever seen. The “Days of 76” in 1976. (Coincidentally the year I moved to Colorful Colorado). The “Days” were the week before Sturgis and the Deadwood rodeo was going on during those weeks, too. There were so many visitors that Pam’s Purple Door and the green, brown, and white doors also were closed for the “girls” yearly vacations. We couldn’t drink in the streets anymore in ‘76 and the older patrons told stories of the “really’ wild Days when the Angels and Bandidos split the town for a week and did exactly as they pleased.
    Then gambling came to Deadwood in ‘89 and ruined the fun.

  20. Algebra 2023-10-29 07:06

    so many factors go into an individual”s or family’s decision to take a vacation
    The economy is problem number one: can we afford it this year?

    It would be interesting to compare statistics of other leisure travel and destinations. While there was some pent-up demand in 2022 because people didn’t go places during covid, the people who didnt go anywhere in ’20 and ’21 went someplace in ’22 and maybe this year they stayed home.

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