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NFL Attendance Falls as At-Home Viewing Experience Improves

Photo Credit: Miami Dolphins News

Despite football’s growing popularity, the National Football League has, over the past five years, struggled with declining attendance numbers.

In 1998, 54 percent of NFL fans would have rather attended a game than watched it from home, according to an ESPN poll.  When repeated in 2011, the survey revealed only 29 percent of fans prefer the stadium experience.   With fewer fans interested in going to games, average attendance in the NFL declined approximately 3.2 percent from 69,564 in 2007 to 67,358 in 2011.

Through the first nine games of the 2012-13 NFL season, attendance is up more than 450 fans per come from the previous year.  Attendance figures are still well below their all-time high from 2007, however.

Although NFL attendance is rebounding slightly after a multiple year decline, the NFL has yet to replicate its record attendance numbers of 2007.

The recent economic recession is at least partially to blame for the aforementioned phenomenon, making it difficult for even the most diehard fans to afford going to a game.  In a time when many Americans struggle to pay their bills, the average NFL price index rose to $443.93 in 2012.  That is, it costs more than $440, on average, for a family of four to attend an NFL game, factoring in the costs of tickets, food and parking (See sidebar).

“In this day and age, football tickets don’t come first,” said Warren Parr, ticket sales manager for the Atlanta Falcons football organization.  “Providing for your family and paying the mortgage on your house and your car has taken away from people buying tickets to the game.”

While cost is an issue, it is far from the NFL’s only obstacle—or even its biggest obstacle—to achieving the high attendance numbers of years ago.  In recent years, the experience of watching football games from home has substantially improved, while the experience of watching games from the stadium has failed to change significantly, price aside.

“Everyone always says it’s about price,” said ESPN correspondent Darren Rovell in an interview with the network in November.  “It’s also in relation to how good the TV product is.  If the TV product wasn’t as good, then obviously people would pay that price to go to the game.”

Sony, Panasonic and other manufacturers have, for example, released increasingly large televisions over the years, including 55-inch, 60-inch and even 80-inch models.  While most companies’ models cost upwards of $1,000, some 40-inch or larger, high-definition units can be found for just over $500.

Network providers and television stations have also improved their services.  DIRECTV, for example, offers customers an “NFL Sunday Ticket” package for $140 per season, providing customers with access to every professional football game over the course of the season.  The NFL also offers the NFL Network and RedZone channels, broadcasting every touchdown and other exciting moments from games, live and in high-definition for $40 per season.

The at-home experience provides other advantages as well.  Not only can fans watch football on large, flat-screen TVs, but they can also do so from the comfort of their couches.  Fans also have access to their own food and bathrooms.

Convenience is yet another important factor for some fans.  By watching the game from home fans can avoid gameday traffic.  They also have access to heat and need not bear the often cold weather outside.

“Twenty years ago you sat in your basement,” said Mark Shearer, director of business operations for the Oakland Raiders. “It was cold and you had a 32-inch TV.  The gameday experience was far better than that.  Fast-forward twenty years, you go into that same basement, and it’s outfitted, it’s warm and it has got an 80-inch plasma TV.”

For fans who want more of a gameday experience—that is, being around other football fans—without the stadium price, sports bars have also become an increasingly popular option.  Some sports bars, like Buffalo Wild Wings locations, are now equipped with more than 40 TVs, broadcasting every game and the RedZone channel.  Others specialize, however, targeting a specific fan base.

“The experience of going out, as long as the bar caters to something that you’re looking for, is still huge,” said Nick Tarter, manager of Buffalo Wild Wings in Evanston, Ill.

Still, for some football fans, neither the at-home experience nor the bar experience compare to visiting the stadium on Sundays.

“The excitement can’t compare to being at the game,” said Northwestern University sophomore Jonathan Slack, a Chicago Bears season ticket holder.  “There is just something about being close to the action that changes the dynamic.  The momentum swings cause fans a lot of excitement and anguish, and those swings are magnified live because everyone is feeling them and reacting to them at the same time.”

About Dylan Kraslow

Dylan is technology editor for NBR. He primarily writes about the start-up space and the business of sports.

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