Is the NFL (In Particular) on the Verge of an Attendance Crisis?

Three of the four playoff games this weekend required last minute intervention from sponsors to avoid being blacked out on TV in local markets due to unsold tickets. I just saw that for the BCS Championship tonight tickets are listed for below face value on StubHub. The average ticket for the BCS Championship is listed for $800, about 50% lower than each of the last two years. Cite.

While TV ratings for the NFL continue to grow, attendance has slowly been dropping. “Slowly” may be a misnomer, as NFL teams report tickets sold rather than people through the gates as official attendance. 11 teams reported attendance of 100% or more of capacity for 2013, and seven more were at 98 or 99%.

I think the TV experience has improved so vastly in the last decade (some of it driven by the NFL itself) that the live atmosphere just isn’t worth it anymore. It costs $100 between tickets and parking just to get in the stadium, and food and beverage prices are ridiculous once there. Then you have late fall and winter weather in large parts of the country that can be brutal (see Green Bay’s cold and Cincinnati’s downpour yesterday) that makes a seat in the recliner in front of the HDTV a really good deal. I can buy a six pack of good local beer, chips, and dip for what two lite beers at the game would cost me. I can also watch every game if desired from a variety of viewpoints, see multiple replays and keep track of my fantasy team at the same time. I also don’t have to deal with drunken and rowdy fans, or traffic before and after the game.

Football is the most susceptible to attendance issues because they have huge stadiums and the games are set up to be TV events. Sunday afternoon games when most people are off work are a lot easier to schedule time for than are weeknight games when the kids need to be fed and homework done and bed gotten into at a reasonable hour.

I like the live atmosphere at a game and will go when the opportunity arises, but I have absolutely no desire to invest in season tickets for football. I’d end up skipping half the games. Stadiums keep on pouring more money into bigger and clearer video screens, higher levels of service (“club level” seating) and wireless service to devices, but prices keep going up for everything. I’d be more likely to respond to the same old seats but cheaper food and drink, or even free food for kids. $15M for a new video screen would buy a lot of kids a lot of hot dogs and a lot of good will from their parents.

I’m not sure if a few unsold tickets constitute a “crisis” but I think your central point is correct.

I have made this observation before and will again; the NFL is a TV show first and a live sporting event second. ** This is something they have deliberately done, to great profit so I’m not saying it’s a mistake. But as the fun of staying home to watch the game increases and the cost of tickets keeps going up it is inevitably possible** that the marginal value of going to the game will decline for enough people that we will see attendance drop.

We haven’t seen this happen before, but it may be happening now. Improvement in the viewing experience at home has been incredible in the recent past; in the last 10-15 years our TVs have gotten many times larger and now deliver pictures of a quality that were the purest fantasy 20 years ago, and you can buy a huge HDTV quite affordably.

Now, it may simply be that this weekend was an anomaly. But maybe it wasn’t.

Not sure about the rest of the league, but Seattle tickets are still a hot item. (no surprise this year).

Personally, I’m in agreement that the experience is much better at home. I don’t care (too much) about the expense of the game, but the other fans, the crowds, the traffic, etc, cause me to prefer a nice warm couch. On the other hand, i’m a bit unusual in this respect. I have a hard time believing it’s a “crisis.” If it is, lowering the ticket price should solve it.

This is an easy problem for the market. Tickets are very expensive, and lots of people don’t go to games because it costs too damn much. If attendance is dropping, prices should drop too. If they don’t, then there’s some bad business going on.

I haven’t been to game in several years, but in the 80s my brother and I went to Saints games with my Dad and we loved it. I wouldn’t be as big of a football fan if we hadn’t went to all those games.

Under normal circumstances there is no problems filling Lambeau (there 100,000 folks on the waiting list for season tickets). They only had issues this time due to:

  1. The fact that it didn’t look like they would make the playoffs
    1a) A lousy refund policy if people bought playoff tickets and GB didn’t make it (or something like that)
  2. The WX


All live sports are suffering, I think. NASCAR, which couldn’t build enough new seats in the 90’s are sometimes 1/3 or more empty.

Several of the big southern college football stadiums are no longer sold out.

Several things have happened, IMO.

TV is just so great. I’m a college football fan and one reason I quit going to many live games was it interfered with me watching all the other big games on Saturday. Traveling to a game limits my game day viewing. I watch one game, tivo another and switch during commercials and halftime. Also, the bath room is 20 feet away. I freeze the telecast when I go pee. The cold beer costs about $11 a 12 pack. Last NFL game I went to charged $9 for a single beer. Take a 100 mile car trip it costs about $25 in gas. Tickets are also way, too expensive. If I want to see a game, I go to craigslist and buy there. Lots of very cheap tickets people need to just dump.
One other thing I think has and will continue to hurt live gates. Demographics. I bought season tickets to my college team when I was in my early 30’s. I’m now 64. Mid Baby boomer. The age group of current ticket buyers (Age 30-40) is way smaller than my age group of people who are now not renewing their season tickets.

I think stadium, capacity is way over built and will be for years. Of course, teams are already doing deals to fill the empty seats.

Actually, I think that football is the least susceptible to this given that there are far fewer games, regularity of the scheduling, and the fact that most are on weekends. While I agree with your central premise, it’s must easier to find time to go to 8 home games as opposed to 41 with the NHL and NBA, or 81 with the MLB.

That said, I think the NFL has made a few mistakes recently that have exacerbated the trend you mentioned. First, all new stadiums should have retractable domes. There is no way you can reliably count on 60k or so people to want to sit for 4 hours in the cold, rain, or snow.

Second, they need to lower the cost of attending the game in some respects. Most families cannot afford the $300 or so it costs to take your two kids to the game. One options is to make the game day experience more family friendly, and less tied to sitting in a stadium watching the game. They could include more team sponsored tailgating things, or smaller theater seating with table service at the stadium.

Will Leitch makes many of these points, talking specifically about football:

“The trend is evident: Going to the games is starting to seem beside the point.”

TV is the big thing he mentions, but fan behavior is up there as well: “football games have a dramatically higher lout-to-normal-human ratio than any other sport (and perhaps any other recreational activity, with the possible exception of a Wall Street bachelor party).”

A couple of things. I don’t think anyone but retired people and corporations own season tickets to baseball all by themselves. When I had season tickets to Rockies games, a group of five people shared a half season of games, which meant that each group went to about eight (coincidentally) games. Also, sellouts are not expected for baseball in the regular season. Hockey and basketball arenas are 1/4 the size of football stadiums and people share tickets to those games as well. Selling out NFL and major college football games used to be the norm.

It is a true thing that NFL TV ratings continue to rise while actual game attendance is falling.

Not necessarily. The business objective is not to sell out but to get the most revenue. If the team can sell 40,000 tickets at an average price of $100, that’s better than selling out all 50,00 seats if you have to lower the average price below $80.

Taking this a little further, we may want to re-evaluate what we define as success. There is a presumption that anything short of a sell-out and capacity crowd is a failure. I’m not sure why this needs to be the case. I would expect more venues to want 75-80% occupancy with headroom for more in premium events. I’m sure detailed cost-benefit analysis has been done which proves or disproves that thesis, but I suspect it’s a mistake to automatically assume anything short of a sell out is a problem.

I suspect that an economist would tell you that a venue that is always at 100% capacity is by definition under-priced. (Nevermind the scalper issue.)

As to the OP, I have a tough time seeing it. I don’t think the NFL has a interest problem for live events, it’s more a population problem. The near-blackouts all occurred in 3 of the smallest NFL markets. That’s a bit of bad luck and it’s predictable and I imagine there are pressures on the ticket prices at the league level which make it tougher for those markets to discount effectively. I can say with certainty that in Chicago a Bears ticket is nigh-on impossible to get. You’re spending $1000+ for 2 tickets before parking and beer, double that in the playoffs, and Soldier Field has a crappy tailgating policy which sucks more of the fun out of it than other venues.

Some NFL owners may well view the current attendance drop as a crisis, but others have foreseen this for a long time, and always saw it as both inevitable and desirable.

I first moved to Texas in 1986, and one of the first sports columns I remember reading here at that time was by Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News. Visionary Dallas Cowboys GM Tex Schramm TOLD Blackie exactly what the future of football was: within 20 years, stadiums and games would be sold and tailored exclusively to corporations and wealthy patrons who’d sit in luxury boxes.

When Blackie asked pointedly, “What happens to the average fan who can’t afford to buy a luxury box,” Schramm had an immediate answer: by then, the average fan will be watching pay-per-view games at home on big screen televisions,

So, SOME NFL execs saw this coming all along, and would have welcomed it.

I attended my first (and thus far, only) live NFL game last Thanksgiving. (Jets vs. Patriots at MetLife Stadium.)

Honestly? I didn’t see the appeal of being at the stadium at all. Most of the action takes place among masses of bodies thrown on top of one another, an a matter of seconds. Most of the other action involved passing to receivers scattered all over the field, so there was no way to know who to focus your attention on until the ball was thrown and the play pretty much over. Maybe veteran game-goers do better than I do being a first-timer, but I had no idea at all what the result of a play was (how much yardage gained, mainly) until it was posted on the scoreboard. Is that a particularly “live” experience?

In baseball and basketball, the action is pretty easy to follow. In hockey, it’s faster and harder to follow, but if you have a good sense of focus, you can do it. In football, unless the action’s directly in front of you, it’s next to impossible to tell a given play resulted in a first down or not, which is pretty essential information.

The rise of HDTV and the saturation of television coverage has eliminated most of my desire to see live sporting events. The ticket prices I don’t mind so much, it’s the notion that once you’re in the gates that they have you by the short hairs and pull at every opportunity. Parking and concessions are outrageously overpriced. I might go to a Spartan football game once a year but they’ve priced me out of season tickets. I can see better on television and if the game goes to pot, I can watch or do something else. I won’t get rained on, snowed on, and can sit in comfort. Sure, they like fannies in the seats but it’s television that pays the bills.

The most interesting trend I’ve seen lately, and which was noted in the sportsonearth column linked to in a previous post, is the dwindling student attendance at schools like Alabama and Georgia. That’s the next generation of fans (at really successful programs, too) and they’re not very interested in attending all day events where they frequently can’t access social media (teams are addressing this somewhat, I think).

The NFL has carefully determined (1) how many commercial stoppages fans will tolerate, both at home and at the stadium and (2) the value of increasing tv viewership versus declining live attendance. Football fans will tolerate a lot of commercials if one hour games take three and a half hours to broadcast; viewers can always find something else to fill that time. Attendees, maybe not so much, and the next round of NFL stadia may have reduced capacities to reflect this trend. By 2025-2030, they might find that somewhere around 35-40,000 is the right number, still big enough to keep the atmosphere hopped up for those watching at home. Even then, they’re going to have to find new ways to keep attendees entertained during all those godawful breaks.

FTR, I’ve quit American football because of the lack of game flow. The game action doesn’t make up for the eternal and infernal stops to talk about things.

I have to point out, too, that attendance in other major sports has flattened out. Major League Baseball attendance, which historically has risen consistently for decades save a big dip after the 1994 strike, declined a bit in 2013 for no other reason, really, than people just didn’t want to go. NHL attendance this year is a down a bit from last year and is no better than it was from the year before. NBA attendance is frighteningly bad in some markets, though contrary to popular belief this problem did not start when Michael Jordan retired.

I’ve been to all four major pro sports live and while I wholeheartedly agree that football is, by far, the absolute worst of them to watch live, many of the same effects could be present in other sports. The expense of going to a game is horrendous; I have a good job and so does my girlfriend, but for us to take our daughters to a Jays or a Raptors game is a really significant outlay of cash, so much so that it’s probably just a one-time-a-year deal. I’m sure most of you know I am a fanatic baseball fan, and I love going to baseball games, but I’m not made of money. You can get a cheap upper deck seat but then you have a cheap upper deck seat. Raptors tix are even pricier, and getting a Leafs ticket requires going through a scalper (and a mortgage lender.)

I don’t think it’s coincidence that we are seeing this flattening of attendance with a flattening of wages in the wake of the 2008/2009 recession. It’d be interesting to examine Canadian trends (a connected market but in an economy that has done relatively well) versus American trends.

Yeah, that’s one of the sad things. I remember being a kid, and normal people had season tickets. There were just people in the neighborhood, or parents friends. I learned to love going to sports on free, left over tickets. And I always assumed one day I would be the guy with season tickets and let kids go.

But short of a lottery win, that just will never happen. And I wonder if it is sustainable in the long term. Most kids don’t have a choice of going to a live game very often. And they do have a choice between watching a game on TV, or playing on Playstation, and the Playstation is likely to win in many cases. I wonder if the lack of exciting and incubating the next generations of fans, will have circular effects as many fanatic fans, come from parents who were fanatic fans.

Live sports for me are not worth it unless I’m close enough to the action. NFL games have priced themselves right out of consideration. Red zone + a 60 in HDTV + all the beer and ribs I can eat is much more preferable at a fraction of the price. I go to college football games bu that’s more for the tailgating and seeing the alma mater than for the sports. In basketball I’ve been spoiled by courtside seats and can never go back. Ever. $200-$500 for craigslist courtsides are much more preferable to $150 lower bowl or $20 nosebleeds.

The problem I have with this discussion is that I’m 54 years old, and I’ve been hearing the same thing since I was a child in the 1970’s.

“My God, you can watch the games in color now! And they have instant replay! Plus, the tickets get more expensive every year–nowadays, the higher priced tickets are almost ten dollars!!! Will sports become a studio show?”

Hasn’t happened yet. Probably won’t ever happen. At worst (or should I say, at best?) we’ll see the ticket price increases level off–and this will be a good thing.

The big screen HDTV as made the difference beween viewing at home and sitting in the stands significantly less, just as the difference in picture quality between watching movies at the theater and at home has decreased dramatically. Now the teams are asking us to pay significantly more for a significantly smaller benefit of watching in person.