The NFL doesn’t have many problems, but the few that exist are being addressed in an admirably head-on fashion.
For example, the league continues to do its best to tweak the rules and regulations to curb concussions and debilitating injuries while also maintaining the natural intensity that so many fans appreciate and desire.
And in a less urgent yet still important realm, the league is considering ways to improve the fan experience within stadiums on game days.
The league has averaged 21 blackouts over the last three seasons and had only 16 in 2011. That hardly seems like a major issue. Yet in 2008, there were only nine blackouts all season. While the economy hasn’t helped, it’s probably safe to say that the NFL fears losing more fans to comfy couches and HD (and, soon enough, 3-D) televisions with surround sound and cheap, limitless beer that isn’t cut off in the third quarter.
This is a good problem to have. Professional football isn’t in jeopardy of losing fans, but there’s a concern that they might migrate from stadiums to recliners. Fine. Honestly, a loyal television viewer is arguably just as valuable as a season-ticket holder. The NFL makes significantly more money off of television contracts than it does from ticket sales, and the majority of those with tickets are replaceable by moving to the next name on the many waiting lists that exist around the country.
Still, this is about optics. Empty seats don’t look good on TV, or anywhere really. So unless they take a page from the Grammys or Oscars and begin hiring seat fillers, the best way to ensure that fans continue to fill those seats is to keep them happy.
“I think we have some rules in the NFL we’ve got to change so we can make (the game) more inviting and appealing,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told FoxSports.com‘s Alex Marvez, who notes that the league will consider new innovations and changes at the March owners meetings in Florida.
Even before I covered the NFL for a living, I preferred watching the action from home on Sundays, mainly because I appreciated and embraced the opportunity to control what I was watching. When there are 10 or more games on at a time, I don’t want to be told to watch only one. Being there is something that can’t be simulated, but it’s not worth losing that control, especially in an age in which technology gives you a better view of the game than you get from, say, section 123, row 16, seat 12.
Football is in a unique spot, because there’s so much down time during its games. Unlike hockey and basketball, it’s easier for fans in attendance to multitask while maintaining focus. That’s why the NFL has to give its fans a chance to look in on other games as often as possible on Sunday afternoons.
“When there are gaps (in action), if you think back 10 or 15 years ago, the tradition was to put relatively simple things on a relatively simple JumboTron,” NFL executive V.P. Eric Grubman told Marvez. “What we’re asking clubs is to think about a world-class programming mindset. Don’t depend on the exact flow of what’s going on on the field to provide a 3-1/2-hour entertainment experience for the fan. There’s only a certain amount of time when there’s action on the field.”
Diehard homer fans won’t go away regardless, but it’s those less attached fans who the league risks losing to couches if it doesn’t offer them the opportunity to monitor their fantasy teams between plays from their real-world teams.
Short of installing airplane-style video screens in the back of each seat so that fans can watch whatever game they want via NFL Sunday Ticket, the best strategy might be to adopt the use of GameDay Vision devices, which give fans the ability to check in on other games and fantasy stats from their seats. Make these available on game days and advertise the hell out of them. I’d certainly buy one at the right price, and I know a lot of people who would.
The key truly is to keep fans in the know. They can’t feel as though they’re entering a bubble for three hours on Sunday afternoon. They need to feel connected to the rest of the football world. Otherwise, more and more of them will opt to stay home.