SBJ/20101004/Sutton Impact

Leagues, teams must give fans new reasons to give up the sofa

Much has been written lately about blackouts at NFL games and declining attendance. Improved television options such as DirecTV subscription passes, affordability of high-definition televisions and the much talked about advent of 3-D TV, along with the uncertainty surrounding the economy, are the reasons most cited as being responsible for this decline.

But are these the only reasons, or are there other factors that need to be considered? I will offer my thoughts about other issues that need to be addressed not only by the NFL but also by all of the major sports leagues experiencing attendance issues or having anxiety about their upcoming seasons.


Participatory control vs. spectatorship

Members of the very desirable 18- to 28-year-old target market have grown up in an era where they have not only selected their preferred forms of entertainment, but they have also exercised some level of control over that entertainment. In EA Sports’ very popular “Madden NFL” video game, participants use a salary cap to build their rosters through drafts and trades, call their own plays, select their stadium, including the playing surface, and even decide the weather. Is it realistic then to expect them to go to a stadium and sit and watch for three hours a game that from whistle to whistle only has 13 to 16 minutes of action? They are accustomed to being in control, and when they lose interest, they move on to the next thing.


This group, call them Generation What’s Next, has also enjoyed an overwhelming array of choices not only in terms of different possibilities, but also competitors within each of those respective possibilities. Jack Trout, in his book “Differentiate or Die,” states that “what used to be national markets with local companies competing for business has become a global market with everyone competing for everyone’s business everywhere.” This is also true in entertainment. As I write this on a Saturday afternoon at my home in Orlando, I have 27 college football games to select from on my DirecTV, not to mention the UFL, MLB and a variety of other sports. But I can also elect to watch movies, play golf, socialize with friends, go to the mall or whatever I choose and, in most cases, whenever I want.

Marketing messages that show fans tailgating
could lure more people to the ballpark.

Cumulative costs vs. ticket costs

Despite the attention given to variable pricing and dynamic pricing, most professional sports teams have affordable tickets either for all events or for less attractive opponents or weekday nights. The issue is cumulative costs: concessions, parking and other costs incurred during the course of the driveway-to-driveway experience. While parking is a variable cost based upon proximity to the venue, concessions are not variable and their cost has escalated beyond the reach of many fans. When a beer and a hot dog approach the cost of a steak dinner at a restaurant, it becomes problematic. In addition to the cost, the size of the products can also be an issue when buying concessions for a 6-year-old. We have to stop viewing the fans as POAs (Prisoners of Arenas), taking advantage of the fact that they are unable in many cases to bring food and drink into the venue nor can they leave to purchase food and be readmitted.

Fan behavior

While tailgating is a very important part of the live experience, the rude behavior and profanity of some fans can be a deterrent for those who may not wish to expose themselves or their families to such behavior. Not all of this behavior can be attributed to tailgating, but it is more explicitly linked to the length of the event and opportunities to drink more and behave irresponsibly. We can’t ban tailgating nor would we wish to, as it is an essential part of the overall experience. What needs to be done is to provide other activities and opportunities that complement tailgating and encourage participation.



Change the marketing and advertising messaging.

Prior to the advances in technology, one could expect to see the game better in person. But stadium designs that put the average fans far from the action and HD televisions that bring them much closer to the action with all of the conveniences of home have made staying home an attractive alternative. Advertising that shows game action needs to be replaced by footage showing people enjoying themselves and doing things on-site: tailgating, interacting with mascots, engaging in activities from the NFL Experience and so forth. The message needs to be that staying home is watching the game, but attending is being part of the game.

Make the game affordable for a wider range of people.

Keep some tickets available on a single-game basis for people who don’t have the resources (time or money) to be season-ticket holders. This helps to keep a funnel of interest and demand: an available group of purchasers who can be reached when there are opportunities. Work with concessions companies to offer family meals and kid-sized portions, and consider offering daily specials with coupons.

Provide activities and attractions that compete for the time and attention of children and other tailgating participants.

Some of the best examples I have seen are the interactive exhibits at the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl. Since these unique activities are not available anywhere else, they serve as a very attractive entertainment option. Other possibilities would be working with a team’s corporate partners to create activation opportunities that are also entertaining. For example, Best Buy could create entertainment zones with video games and competitions between fans, a grocery store could create a food challenge, or Travel Channel could be encouraged to bring its popular “Man v. Food” show to tape live segments with a local flavor.

These issues need to be addressed now before they evolve to the point where the consumer feels there is no decision to be made. Generation What’s Next not only has buying power, but, through the power of social networking, also has the ability to influence personal networks. Take a proactive role before that opportunity is taken away from you.

Bill Sutton ( is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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