Opinion: Free advice for solving the NFL’s attendance dip

What’s better than being there as your favorite NFL team rumbles to victory? Evidently it’s watching in high-definition from the comfort of your living room. And while the league appreciates your viewership, it isn’t thrilled about losing nearly 800,000 paying attendees – or approximately $60 million in ticket revenue – since 2007.

With attendance at its lowest point since 1998, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the dip recently, calling the living room experience “outstanding” and suggesting that stadiums must compete with it “by making sure we create the same kind of environment and use the same kind of technology.”

Stadia magazine, a sports venue design publication, took up the discussion as well, running a major story on what teams can do to get fans back in the stadium. Like Goodell, Stadia focused on adding new technology – particularly enhanced video and Wi-Fi – to address lagging attendance, an obligatory refrain in this wired age, but also a hollow one.

Is HD instant replay and wireless connectivity really what keeps you in your living room on Sundays? Or is it the NFL’s average ticket price – now at almost $78 dollars – and the grueling, expensive gauntlet of actually getting to and enjoying the game?

Goodell’s charge to mimic the living room experience is well intended, but off target. We already have the living room experience in our living room. The NFL needs to differentiate, not duplicate. And since ticket prices will only increase, the league must create an in-stadium experience that makes it worth the price. Video and Wi-Fi is but a tiny part of that strategy which should truly begin outside the venue with city planners and architects. Creating more efficient transit into, through and out of the stadium is a must. Modeling technology exists for this sort of planning and, while flashy new video boards create buzz, delivering a breakthrough in transit efficiency would truly transform the stadium experience. Time is expensive. Giving people more of it adds major value.

Inside the stadium, when it’s not about efficiency (concourses, concessions, bathrooms) and comfort (seats with leg room), it’s about aura. Video boards and Wi-Fi play a role, no doubt, but it’s more about reaching the fan on an even deeper level. They can watch the game in their living room. Only in the stadium can they feel it. The emotion, the pageantry, the history, the true connection to everything around you – that is the difference between watching the game and feeling it. And that is the differentiator the NFL must amplify.

The aura remains college football’s secret ingredient, helping it survive a century of encroachment from the professional game. So strong is it, that in the savory Southeastern Conference, average attendance outpaced the NFL by some 17 percent last season. It was Roll Tide and Rocky Top, not video boards and Wi-Fi that made the difference.

Fans want to be awed. They want to be swept up in something epic. They want to feel something they can’t feel in their living rooms.

Give them that, and they’ll trade their remotes for tickets.

– Jayson Hron

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