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.