Keeping Score

The NFL Can’t Sell Out

On the eve of this year's playoffs, three games have been slow to fill home stadiums, forcing the league to threaten that it will blackout broadcasts of the games in local markets

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Matt Rourke / AP

Fans covered with snow wait in the stands before an NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions, Dec. 8, 2013, in Philadelphia.

The NFL is Teflon. Concerns about things like he safety of the game and player misbehavior haven’t punctured the league’s popularity. So that’s why the big storyline entering the opening weekend of the playoffs is somewhat shocking. As of Friday morning, the playoff games in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Green Bay hadn’t sold out. Yes, you read that right, even cultish Packers fans weren’t sprinting to Lambeau Field to sit through a football game in 0-degree weather. A failure to fill every seat triggers the NFL’s controversial blackout policy: the games weren’t going to be broadcast in the Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Green Bay markets.

Indianapolis and Green Bay got a save. The Colts announced on Friday that Meijer, a regional superstore, bought the remaining 1,200 tickets. Corporate partners helped scoop up Green Bay’s tickets too.

Still, the calls were close. NFL execs will tell you: they’re not surprised this day has come. For the last couple of years, they’ve fretted about in-game attendance. Why overpay for tickets, sit in traffic, and freeze your ass off in the nosebleeds, when your man-cave has a 1,000-inch HD TV with movie-quality surround sound, and a twelve-pack in the fridge? Plus, at home, you can more comfortably crack wise with your Twitter pals, and keep up with your fantasy team.

Sure, you can do this kind of thing at the game, but good luck getting good smart phone service in an 80,000-seat stadium. Plus, if you’re at the game and not actually watching it, what’s the point of spending all that extra cash?

Technology is going to cannibalize NFL ticket revenue. That’s why, in recent years, the NFL has talked up its efforts to improve the “in-game experience.” Connectivity in stadiums is better. Video replay boards are larger, and fans in the stands have access to better replay technology.

Replay and wi-fi and fancy scoreboards, however, won’t be enough. Short of weekly Springsteen concerts at halftime or cash giveaways or teleports to take you from your living room to section 107, what can teams actually do to incentivize fans to go to the stadium? The game will always be the primary in-game experience. And if that game looks better on the flat-screen, if you have your own personal video board in the basement, why bother?

Attending football games comes with more inherent hassles than other events. The larger crowds mean tougher commutes. In many markets, weather in November and December is more of an issue that, say, it is during an April baseball game.

Baseball games are more of an outing. You can wonder around the stadium, have a few beers on a hot summer day, miss a few innings … who cares? There’s another game tomorrow, and another after that, and another after that. Even at basketball and hockey arenas, you can be more social during the action.

Football offers a limited supply of games – eight at home, per year. So when you’re there, the field has to be the focus. You’re not wandering on the walkway in right field fence, checking out the view.

At the same time, football’s intensity is part of the fun. Roaring along with 80,000 fans, when your team scores a touchdown, is an experience you can’t duplicate elsewhere. It’s addictive. And the pre-game tailgates can’t be beat.

The NFL won’t be lacking fans. But going forward, sellouts aren’t going to be a sure thing. Even in the playoffs. In Green freakin’ Bay.

12 comments
disinterested3rdparty
disinterested3rdparty

that little camera on controlled cables that goes down to the field and within 10 feet of players?  you know, the one that gets so close you can see skin imperfections of the players, and peer right into their helmets?  it gives home viewers a better view of the game than even the most expensive seat at the stadium, and has devastated NFL ticket sales.

JohnBailo
JohnBailo

If this is the case, then maybe we need stadiums with better quality seats, and fewer of them, but also, more games.

MaseWehrle
MaseWehrle

Sports channels are already 70% of the cost of your total cable/sat package so blackouts make sense.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Epitaph for a Football Fan: 

Here lies Fred, who froze to death

"I love Football" his last breath.

Through snow he went to slake his need,

just to fulfill an owner's greed.


Now he lies six feet under,

Laid low by a driver's blunder.

He should have gone a different route

When the owners had the game blacked out.


But don't morn much for dear old Fred

Even though he's frozen dead.

He's watching football from a seat in heaven,

If it isn't blacked out on channel eleven.

AlanHall
AlanHall

In Seattle, our next game isn't until the following weekend, and it sold out in seconds. We tried to get tickets and couldn't. 

xriva
xriva

Will owners ever decide that it doesn't matter where games are actually played if everyone is at home? Maybe they will stop asking fans to pay to build 100K seat stadiums. 


I do know that some particularly poorly run teams (America's Team comes to mind immediately) still have fans choking the stadium on game day. 


Many owners are getting stadiums full of fans plus the TV revenue. I don't see the system changing any time soon, Green Bay black-outs or not. 

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

Ticket prices are far too high and they make most money from TV and merchandise.   They should use stadium attendance to increase fan base support not for income. 

roknsteve
roknsteve

Minus 20 degrees is just a liberal fairy tale.  Because the conservatives said there's no climate change..  Vote out all republicans in November because they are ignorant and won't change.  

zaglossus
zaglossus

I'm surprised that the NFL maintains this black out policy for playoff games also. They can't really expect fans to show up in mass and risk frostbite, can they?

amkessel
amkessel

Bring the ticket prices down and I'm sure demand will go up.

davidhoffman
davidhoffman

@zaglossus,

The fans have done it before. but stagnant or decreasing real take home pay and discretionary spending resources combined with what could be very high winds and large snowfall may have made it a no go for even some Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts fans. Getting trapped in snow drifts is not the way many want to be after attending a very expensive football game excursion.  

The blackout rule needs to be ended or significantly modified.  Maybe you require a minimum of 90% to be sold  instead of 100%.

zaglossus
zaglossus

@amkessel I wonder though. Would you attend that game in Green Bay this weekend even if tickets were given away? Conditions there (except for more frozen water) won't be much different than playing on Mars.


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