Football fans have presented an economics test to the NFL.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, since 2007 attendance at NFL games has deteriorated by 4.5%. While the state of the American economy may be the go-to scapegoat, the problem may be more fundamental.
NFL fans are sending a message. The experience of attending a live game doesn't justify the cost, and the NFL must lower the price or add value if they want us to fill their seats.
In comparison to the NFL, Major League Baseball has actually seen an uptick in attendance this year. One of the biggest factors may be the existence of parity throughout the league as the NL Central, NL East, and AL East are upside down and fans are loving it. Behind the resurgence of small-market teams has been a youth movement that has infused the league and excited baseball fans.
Most baseball fans also feel like we may finally be clear of the PED era for once. Or, perhaps baseball fans may never have actually dwindled in numbers; they just took a break in disgust. On top of that, the MLB also has guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout who have fans excited again about the future.
But an even larger factor, lower ticket prices, is something baseball can claim over the NFL.
According to the WSJ article: “[NFL] Ticket prices have climbed in recent years, from an average $72.20 in 2008 to $77.34 last year, according to Team Marketing Report. Along with the ticket, the average NFL beer is now $7.20, a hot dog is $4.77 and parking costs $25.77.”
The ability to attend an MLB game for a third of the cost makes it easier to justify the purchase. Granted, the NFL is able to charge higher prices due to a lower number of regular season games (16) versus that of the MLB (162). But the factor of scarcity only carries so far and the consumers have sent a message by dropping out of one market and into another one. Namely, the broadcast and online viewing market.
About half of all income for NFL teams comes from media contracts, the richest media market of any professional sport in the world. The product available in the home has improved immensely and --- dollar-for-dollar (practically free) -- has given fans an opportunity for a quality game-watching experience at a fraction of the cost. But NFL organizations aren't complaining about the cash flow from at-home viewership, they simply are stumped as to how they can get fans back into the stadiums.
Thankfully the league seems to be realizing the core problem and has already taken steps to address the issue for the 2012 season.
To add value to the NFL experience, some teams have already implemented change for this year. In-stadium wi-fi availability, access to official replay videos, and on-field audio feeds of player mics are a few of the key aspects new for fans at the game. The NFL is also loosening it's grip on the atmosphere itself as PA announcers will be allowed to rile up fans in crucial situations such as an opponent's third-down attempt.
The biggest shift, however, appears to be the change regarding the NFL's blackout rule. Starting in 2012 the league's owners have agreed to lower the threshold to 85% for attendance to prevent a local black-out for broadcasts (each team can set a higher standard). Previously, if a team failed to sell-out a home game the fans in the local market would be denied television coverage -- something that backfired on the league.
This year each team will be allowed to set their own blackout restrictions with 85% being the lowest mark. Organizations will be forced to pay a revenue "penalty" each time the back-out threshold is passed -- encouraging each franchise to set the mark higher than the league minimum to promote ticket sales.
The bottom line appears to be that the American people are analyzing the value of a ticket like never before. Fans don’t go to the game just for the game, they want an experience; especially for the cost they must pay. And the television broadcasts have become so good that we feel we get a quality experience from the comfort of our home.
When we fork over a couple hundred bucks to watch a football game (including parking and concessions) we demand more to justify the costs. The simple answer would be to lower the cost of the ticket, parking, and concessions to match the experience, but that's not a realistic expectation.
It's time for the NFL to get creative and add significant pieces to the live-game experience package if they want to pull us off the couch and into the stadium seats.
What changes would make the price of an NFL ticket worth it?
Justin Mikels is a staff writer for Operation Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @long_snapper.