Can teams keep fans focused on the game?
The bases are loaded in the bottom of the fourth. It’s third and goal in the middle of the third quarter. It’s crunch time.
Do you know where your fans are?
It’s the way of the sports world now. Fans at games want to enjoy food and drink, walk around and socialize. A variety of amenities lure them from the seating bowl.
“It’s like a moving event. They want to see the building, they want to see the game. They want to go socialize with their friends,” said Chris Pezman, vice president for athletics at the University of Houston.
But Pezman said at some point fans need to be engaged in the game for the home team and to create a buzz around events.
“We have to figure out a way that they stay in their seats.”
It’s a concern across pro and college sports as teams, fans and television viewers frequently see large swaths of empty seats during games. It’s a challenge for television producers who want to offer compelling visuals and a quandary for team executives who want to amplify the in-venue vibe.
“It seems like sometimes the game is secondary,” said Todd Rose, business development engineer with Daktronics, the South Dakota-based scoreboard and electronics company.
It’s clear that fans today don’t want to be tied to a seat.
“They want to see everything in a building and not be confined to Row 34, Seat 32, and that’s where you stay,” said Bruce Miller, senior architect and senior principal with Populous. He’s designed Target Field and Allianz Field in Minnesota.
Teams and venues have responded by designing amenities aimed at providing a better overall game-day experience. That can include premium lounges, standing room areas, bars for socializing, and expanded concourses to entice fans to explore and mingle.
Open concourses where fans can watch the action while they get concessions or just roam are the norm at newer buildings such as Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and renovated arenas and ballparks. Open views to the playing field allow fans to stand at drink rails or on terraces to watch games from bars and food stands.
“We have standing room all over the building,” said Scott Jenkins, general manager for Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He said the Falcons sold 2,000 standing-room-only tickets for their Nov. 18 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay said the idea of fans sitting in their seats for three hours straight for a game is increasingly in the past. That’s why Mercedes-Benz Stadium features nine bars and lower food prices to entice fans to explore the venue. “We want to create an environment where people felt like they could move around,” McKay said.
Heavy use of television monitors and display boards further allow fans to follow the action away from the field. The Buffalo Bills, for example, have installed more than 500 television monitors inside premium areas at New Era Field.
“It all comes back to the experience sports fans are looking for today,” said Doug Moss, general manager for sports and entertainment at Leyard and Planar Systems, which installs video and digital displays in social and fan areas at sports facilities.
The challenge comes in balancing those fan desires with the goal of creating a vibrant game atmosphere, and a loud, intense home-field advantage with people cheering from their seats, and one that doesn’t lead to rows of vacated seats as fans choose to watch the action elsewhere.
“When you have an all-you-can-eat crab buffet and lobster buffet, who the hell is going to sit in the seats when they can sit in air conditioning?” said Bill Johnson, design principal with architecture firm HOK, on the temptation fans have to choose premium lounges over stadium seats, especially during unpleasant weather.
The empty seats left behind can challenge the optics of television broadcasts.
“Having full stadiums and arenas makes the telecast feel better, more lively, richer to people watching at home. However, attendance at stadiums and arenas is not something we can control,” said Mark Gross, senior vice president of production and remote events at ESPN.
Chris Giles, COO of the Oakland Athletics, said teams have to get used to fans having varying levels of engagement with what is happening on the field or court.
“They want the ability to have a more flexible experience,” Giles said. That means sometimes leaving their seats — even the best seats — to go experience the ballpark, stadium or arena. “We need to embrace the ways our fans want to consume our product.”
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Rob Matwick, executive vice president of business operations for the Texas Rangers, said the team expects fans to want to explore, eat, drink and socialize at the new Globe Life Field being built in Arlington. But when games are on the line in later innings or the Rangers are in a pennant race or the playoffs, Matwick expects those same fans to be in their seats. Still, Matwick said the new ballpark, set to open in 2020, will have open concourses and plenty of social, food and drink, and standing areas where fans can still watch the game — just not from their seats.
Teams and venues have tried to find a balance with expanded in-seat ordering, faster grab-and-go food options in the concourse, more comfortable seating, social media interactions and even paring back the number of televisions in some premium areas to entice people to get back to their seats.
But sometimes even all that isn’t enough.
“People don’t want to be enclosed or cloistered into these little boxes any more,” said Thad Sheely, COO of the Atlanta Hawks. “They want a great view. They want to be part of the action. They also want to be able to move around and watch the game on their terms.”
The Atlanta Hawks, as part of their $192.5 million makeover of State Farm Arena, redesigned premium seating with a focus on providing more open sight lines for fans as they mingle.
Sheely said teams can’t dictate to their customers how they consume events and said the industry can put too much weight on television optics about crowds.
For the most part, it’s been giving the fans what they want. And this isn’t a trend that can be blamed on millennials. Just ask the New York Yankees, who have drawn attention for fans leaving high-priced seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium to visit restaurant and bar areas. The empty seats show up on the main camera view behind the pitcher, giving the appearance of a thin crowd even though the seats are sold.
“Millennials and young professionals regularly expressed their need for places to congregate and socialize for extended periods of time, especially easily accessible locations with creative food, views of the field and dependable Wi-Fi,” said Marty Greenspun, senior vice president for strategic ventures for the Yankees. “But we also heard from parents and grandparents, who explained how having a play space for their young children and grandchildren would allow them to go to more games and stay longer while in the stadium.”
That desire encouraged the Yankees to convert bleachers into social areas, create standing-room-only passes for $15 per game (which includes one beer, soda or bottled water), and to open a wine bar that can serve as another hangout.
“The overarching theme was that everyone wanted more things to do and more spaces to enjoy beyond just their assigned seat,” said Greenspun, adding that the Yankees have also brought new social areas and socially focused cabanas to their spring training ballpark in Tampa.
Daktronics’ Rose said the firm continues to install more television screens and digital boards in social areas away from the field of play so people can keep a watch on the game while they’re gathered in those spaces.
“You are not going to be able to force them” to stay in their seats, Rose said. “You have do what the customer wants.”
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Not all teams and venues are content with their fans spending much of their time away from their seats. They favor the atmosphere created by cheering fans in the main seating bowl.
“We’re analyzing this problem right now. It’s a problem that baseball stadiums are having, that a lot of colleges are having,” said Andrzej Czech, an architect and designer with NBBJ.
Adam Stover, a senior interior designer and principal with Populous, said not having empty seats show up on television but giving fans what they want was front of mind in the design of the new American Airlines 1914 Club at Wrigley Field. The premium club includes 600 seats behind home plate and an exclusive VIP bar and food area. It opened this past Chicago Cubs season.
“You don’t want it so engaging you don’t want to go outside,” Stover said.
That resulted in a limited number of TV screens in the club. Stover said a big wall of TV screens coupled with a climate-controlled lounge can capture fans’ attention. “That just entices someone to camp out and watch,” he said, which is not what the Cubs wanted at Wrigley.
The 1914 Club has dedicated food and drink vendors walking the aisles so fans don’t need to leave their seats. Elsewhere in the ballpark, the Cubs and concessionaire Levy Restaurants installed eight grab-and-go coolers where fans can quickly get food and drinks and return to their seats.
Mobile ordering is another way teams and venues are making it easier for fans to get food and beverages without leaving their seats. Concessionaire Aramark tested a program at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia where fans can order drinks by scanning a QR code at their seats and using Apple Pay. That program could be expanded to other venues.
Centerplate has rolled out a similar QR code service for premium fans at BC Place in Vancouver for the MLS Whitecaps and CFL BC Lions.
Technology might also get younger fans more engaged and get them to watch the games as much as their phones and social media, said Alex Hertel, CEO and co-founder of Xperiel, a Silicon Valley technology firm that installs digital fan interactions at sports venues.
“They are struggling to engage with younger fans, the next generation of consumers,” said Hertel.
Hertel said predictive gaming where fans can wager on things going on during the game and interactive contests using smartphones appeal to younger fans. “This generation of viewers grew up with Xbox controllers in their hands,” Hertel said. His company has done work for the New York Jets, Sacramento Kings (which has invested in the company) and most recently the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The gaming allows fans to win jerseys, tickets and other gear.
Beyond technology, something as simple as a more comfortable seat can have results. The Atlanta Braves and the Class AAA Las Vegas 51s are among teams that have installed mesh seating from 4Topps.
“No one wants to sit in an uncomfortable seat anymore,” said HOK’s Johnson. “We should be able to do better.”