The NFL's 'Stadium Experience' Talk Is A Load Of Bull

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05: A young fan plays in the confetti after Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

We posted a story earlier today (via PFT) about the Colts resorting to seemingly silly tricks to essentially con fans into buying preseason tickets for 2012. Related to that story, this past weekend, I participated in an off-line NFL bloggers roundtable where myself, Joel Thorman of Arrowhead Pride (and SBNation.com), Jason Brewer of Bleeding Green Nation, Levi Damien of Silver and Black Pride, Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider, new Behind the Steel Curtain editor Neal Coolong, and others who I cannot name (because I'd run out of space) discussed the NFL's push to improve the stadium experience.

For many bloggers, we all felt that the enhancements the NFL is thinking of implementing to the stadiums are all good ideas. Free Wi-Fi in Lucas Oil Stadium would be nice. Enhanced replay views is good as well. An iPhone app that let's me hear players who are miked on the sidelines is pretty cool too.

However, for me, and seemingly for SB Nation's Bomani Jones, new technology options in stadiums are not enough to get fans to leave the comfy, familiar, and significantly cheaper seats on their couches at home on Sundays. My roundtable with the bloogers took place mostly on Friday, but here are some of Bomani's tweets on the subject last night:

Jones is responding to a Pro Football Talk article that cited numbers showing that, in 2007 (the year after the Colts beat the Bears and won Super Bowl XLI) attendance at NFL stadiums was at an all-time high. Since then, it has steadily gone down. The 2011 season was the lowest total attendance since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.

We've written a great deal about the Colts losing 13% of their season tickets holders after they cut Peyton Manning. Overall, that 13% loss was more a result of Indianapolis' flaky, fair-weather sports market than the trend of dwindling attendance. If you don't believe me, or if you are simply finding it more convenient to blame the economy for such a dramatic drop in season ticket sales, ask yourself this: If Peyton Manning were healthy, a high profile coach like Tony Dungy still on the sidelines, and the Colts a contending team, would that loss have been 13%? Would there been a loss at all?

Factor in that the Denver Broncos raised their ticket prices even before they signed Manning. Unlike Indianapolis, they did not have such a dramatic drop in season ticket sales.

However, there is no doubting that there is a drop-off in fans attending NFL games all across the league landscape, regardless of whether Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, or Andrew Luck is the starting quarterback. From what I am seeing, that drop-off is not necessarily with the season ticket crowd. It's "Joe Sixpack," the kind of fan who doesn't have thousands upon thousands of dollars every year to blow on football.

To pull this back around and keep it focused on the blogger roundtable, overall my colleagues felt that the gameday experience would be enhanced with the changes the NFL has proposed. For them, and for me, it seems the NFL wants their stadiums to rival what college football fans enjoy every Saturday. In fact, the NFL even referenced college football when he discussed the proposed changes last week.

From the WSJ:

In hopes that professional football can mimic the wild stadium atmosphere typical of college football games, the NFL says it has "liberalized" its restraints on crowd noise. Stadiums will now be free to rile up crowds with video displays, and public-address announcers will no longer be restrained from inciting racket when the opposing offense faces a crucial third down.

For me, I think this all misses the point. The "gameday enhancements" stuff is just a smoke screen. It's a band-aid for a man missing his leg. It hopes to push our thinking in one direction while ignoring the elephant that is peeing a lake into our punchbowl.

Ticket prices are way too damn high, and normal, average, Joe Pixpack fans cannot afford them on the budgets our weak economy forces them to stick to.

Unless ticket prices go down, by a lot, it is nearly pointless to attend an NFL in game in person. Hell, you're almost labeled a chump if you buy gameday tickets, pay normal concession prices, and burn your precious gas all to watch a game that is just as enjoyable on your huge, flat-screen TV (which you are likely still paying off with monthly payments) in your nice, suburban home on your underground man cave stocked with cheap beer and reasonably priced snacks.

Blogger Roundtable

Here is an email I sent to our roundtable group discussing the stadium enhancements topic. I present it to you, unfiltered and unedited (save a few email typos and some reformatting to make it look a little better in a blog post) so that you can see what I'm talking about:

I think the "stadium experience" topic is missing the point. The NFL is trying to justify something when they say they want to "enhance the experience." OK, fine. I'm all for enhancing, but that doesn't solve the problem.

Stop for a moment and look at this from purely a dollars and cents decision on the part of average, Joe Sixpack fans.

To go to an NFL game, just one game, will cost the average Indianapolis household $500. That's just for one, any old game. That's an average, regardless of the opponent. That number doesn't fluctuate too much whether the team is 12-0 or 0-12.

  • Decent seats at Lucas Oil Stadium are, on average, $150 a pop.
  • If you buy just one beer ($7.50), one container of nachos ($5.00), and a water ($3.50), that's another $16. If you add a slice of pizza in there, it's another $8.00.
  • Parking downtown on Sunday is between $20.00-$50.00
  • Toss in the price of gas, and the average game for the average family (we'll say three people) on the average NFL Sunday is $500.00.

Now, factor in the median household income in Indianapolis is $43,000 a year, pre-tax. Toss in a monthly mortgage of, say, $1200 a month and include other monthly bills (electric, cell phone, Internet, cable, gas, food, etc.), and how, in god's name, can an average family afford any sort of live NFL game experience?

More importantly, why would they want to even with all these proposed "enhancements?"

What sorts of enhancements justify $500 for a game that is just as enjoyable, and significantly cheaper, then the home experience?

I know the NFL compared their desired experience to a college gameday. College fans are a VERY different crowd than what the NFL has been marketing itself towards over the years (aka, families). Other than some sort of ridiculous free halftime show (we're talking, like Sesame Street's Elmo being shot out of a cannon AT THE FANS! while Lady Gaga does Michael Bolton covers on a stage made of diamonds), I really can't think of any enhancements that justify that.

Better instant replay? Wi-Fi in the stadium? Those are nice, but they still aren't worth $500.

For me (and maybe I'm totally alone on this, and if I am, apologies), this story begins and (hopefully) ends with one thing: The NFL absolutely must lower ticket and concessions prices. I mean, by a lot. Keep in mind, the NFL and their partners absolutely do not want fans tailgating to games, especially if the stadium is located downtown. They want you down there, eating in restaurants, buying their concessions, and spending, spending, spending. Unless the team is just so good that you're literally intoxicated into blowing your money on them, what is the benefit to Joe Sixpack?

Simple, there's isn't one. It's better and cheaper to watch the games at home.

Now, I'm saying all this as a resident of NYC who makes a helluva lot more than the median household income in Indianapolis. I haven't even factored in what is on the mind of every fan who watches a Colts game: That stadium was funded mostly with taxpayer dollars, and taxes pay for its yearly maintenance cost of $20,000,000. Every time they're biting into that crappy, $8.00 slice of pizza, they're thinking of that $20 mill a year cost.

Again, I'm the asshole here. I'm also a cynic and I know when I'm being conned. The NFL is conning people here. That's how I see it just looking at the money.

Other than me getting a lap dance from Ryan Tannehill's wife at halftime, I don't see how any of the enhancements discussed (both here in this chain or by the NFL in media talks) justify $500 a game. That's money that can go to family vacations, holiday gifts, college education, etc.

Sorry for the long email. Just my 2 cents.

It's worth noting that, for Kevin Nogle, he too agrees that a lap dance by Ryan Tannehill's wife would go a long way to solving stadium attendance issues.

Football In Indianapolis Unattainable?

Going forward, it's clear the NFL has a big problem. Unless they want to completely change their business model, and tailor their gameday experience to rich folks who work as investment bankers, it's simply too much money to go see a game. A few bloggers raised the valid point that this transition has already happened, and they might be right.

However, it's clear (at least, to little ole me) that the league still tries to market itself to Joe Sixpack, particularly the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, should the NFL simply give up on trying to get Joe Sixpack to attend games, then football in Indianapolis is no longer attainable.

Indy doesn't really have a high population of the I Banker crowd, and I'm willing to bet that the 13% that said "seeya" to Jim Irsay this offseason fall more into that demographic than the Joe Sixpack, $43,000-a-year-pre-tax-median-income one.

It's this economic reality that has people like me worried. If the Colts do not have a good season, and all signs point to them struggling, the people with the money to buy these tickets will continue to drop off. It is these people that the NFL truly wishes to rope in. They are the reason prices are so high, because in markets like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, there's more of them willing to spend their disposable income.

However, even in those places, attendance is still dropping.

What also has me concerned is that the NFL isn't even bringing up discounted ticket prices as an option. It almost goes without saying that one of the reasons college games are more festive is because students can get into those stadiums at a significantly discounted rate. Part of the reason Assembly Hall stayed active during these last ten years, when Indiana basketball was completely irrelevant, was because of discounted prices. That, and tradition.

In places like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Baltimore, there is a strong football tradition. Those franchises have played in multiple Super Bowls (and won multiple championships) over a period of decades. Grandfathers are watching games with grand kids. That's something beyond fan loyalty.

Indianapolis doesn't have anything close to that sort of tradition. The only thing that mildly resembled that was Peyton Manning, and he's now in Denver (a city with a much stronger football and pro sports pedigree than Indy).

Basically, Make the Games Affordable

If you've made it this far through this article, I thank you. I'll wrap this up by saying that the blogger roundtable opened my eyes to how different each market's fanbase perceived and valued their team. For me, I don't think there is any question that Indianapolis cares about football. 7,500 people showed up to a practice in early June. A practice that was free, open to the public, and held at Lucas Oil Stadium in the middle of the day.

Key emphasis there: Free.

Hoosiers care about football. Last year, despite an awful product put on the field, Lucas Oil Stadium had the fourth best average percentage of capacity; better than even the Patriots and Giants. However, going forward, Indianapolis just doesn't have enough people with the money to watch this sport live, especially if the product on the field struggles. Those that do have disposable income will simply spend that money on the team or sport that is winning at the time (hence, the fair-weather label). The truly loyal fans, the ones who live and breath this Colts stuff, they are the ones working on limited budgets, struggling to make ends meet.

However, despite their loyalty, the NFL cares little for these fans.

This is a business, folks, and the basic rule of business is that if the local market cannot sustain your product, but another one can, then you move your product to that other market. The NFL isn't interested necessarily in keeping football in Indianapolis, or Jacksonville, or St. Louis. They are only interested in making money. Right now, Los Angeles has two spots open. They have a large population of the big money crowd (entertainment lawyers, publicists, agents, rich movie producers, etc.) who are not living off $43,000 a year. If high ticket prices can work there, then the NFL will simply move teams to that location. Markets like Chicago and the Bay Area could also support an additional team.

It's all very troubling, especially since the NFL isn't even bringing up the prospect of lowering ticket prices. As the job market continues to only get slightly better, communities like Indianapolis will have fewer and fewer people attending NFL games. If the league truly wishes to "enhance the experience" and make gameday more like a college football atmosphere, then the first thing they must consider is a substantial reduction in ticket prices. As Bomani stated, income and cost are huge keys. If the NFL ignores them, then in my opinion, football in the Rust Belt is in serious jeopardy.

Note: Data on median household income in Indianapolis in Indianapolis taken from 2010 census

Note II: Despite an 0-14 start to the 2011 season, the Colts earned $254 million dollars last year in revenue, says Forbes. They have operated over $100 million in the black on a yearly basis since, at least, 2002.

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