Will fans continue to show up?
Owners are already asking themselves this question, but as technology continues to advance, it will be right up there with “how do we hide our coach’s foot fetish videos?” and “where can I get clean urine for my players?” as a primary concern in their minds. Let’s face it, professional sports are king in America, but their castles are shifting much like their fans; away from cities and into the suburbs.
Even the most fervent sports fans I know are giving up their season tickets at alarming rates. This is common in cities with wine-and-cheese fanbases where teams are underperforming or run by David Kahn or Isiah Thomas, but when it’s happening in true-blue sports towns, owners need to start worrying.
As the nation inevitably continues to age, the ratio of multi-tasking, 24/7 internet-connected, fantasy sports-playing fans is phasing out the baby boomers who think the home-team is all that matters, fantasy sports means watching the lingerie football league, and can’t keep up with the pace of bottom line tickers and live look-ins. With all of the options available to follow along, people are becoming less and less interested in sitting in the same seat for 3 hours only focused on one thing.
Add to that the breakneck speed at which technology is advancing and owners have a problem bigger than Albert Haynesworth on their hands. It was less than a decade ago that big screen TVs were only for the wealthy. Even then, it didn’t entitle the viewer to high definition broadcasts, just a larger picture broadcast in 480i on a screen that felt like a 1988 Sportflics Card. Flash-forwarding to today: if you don’t have at least a 40” 1080P TV you are considered archaic, and anything under 50” seems terribly undersized.
The real problem for owners is not only the fact that televisions are reproducing broadcasts clearer, it’s that televised events are rivaling, and in some cases surpassing the live experience. Bear in mind, that there is nothing in the world like a playoff atmosphere, but for a regular run-of-the-mill Tuesday night NBA game, more fans are opting to stay home, and I can’t blame them. If you are a casual sports fan, you may need the commentary to understand what’s going on. Even if you follow sports like your life depends on it, seeing pitch-tracker charts, the first down line, and having an encyclopedia’s worth of stats at your fingertips enhances the game watching experience exponentially. Besides, if you are watching in the stadium, you can’t crack yourself and your 13 Twitter followers up with your witty mockery of Tim McCarver or Troy Aikman.
Here is how I would grade major American professional sports in terms of TV vs. live watchability.
NFL: A-Plus televised / B-Minus live
MLB: A-Minus televised / A live
NBA: B-Plus televised / C live
NHL: C televised / A-Plus live
PGA: A televised / D live
(I have yet to attend a UFC fight, major boxing match, or professional soccer game live, so I can’t speak to the live atmosphere for those.)
So, what are you missing by not being there live? Aside from the NHL which is incredible live, you are missing a little better MLB experience and not much else. I understand that many readers may disagree with my B-Minus for the live NFL experience, but understand that I’m not a big sports drinker; I prefer to get my buzz from the game itself. I don’t find it exciting to get Mel Gibson-like drunk, stumble around, and have no idea what’s going on. Understand this, I love a good tailgate, but getting hammered isn’t on my agenda when I attend a sporting event. That being said, there is no regular-season tailgate in the world that can beat the NFL Sunday Ticket, 5 TVs, surround sound, good friends, grilled food, clean bathrooms, and if you so choose: (compared to stadium prices) cheap beer with actual taste; unless of course you are tailgating with Tim Couch and the Victoria’s Secret Angels.
That just takes into account the experience during the game. Attending an NFL game live means your whole day is shot. Many people get up before sunlight, and accounting for traffic, don’t get home until way past sunset. If dropping a couple grand a year to see one football game per Sunday is your thing, I won’t criticize; it’s just not for me. To the owners’ dismay, thanks to the reasons above, and the fact that a lot of people would rather follow their fantasy teams than their favorite teams, more and more people are starting to follow my logic. Maybe not in Green Bay, where the waiting list for season tickets at last count, sits at 83,881, but that is more of a status symbol and rite of passage than anything else. Besides, anyone that lives in one of the coldest places in America may not follow the guidelines of human logic.
As for the NBA, I gave it a C live, which is a bit generous for the regular season, but actually seeing how big the players are has sideshow quality appeal. The NBA regular season is without question the worst in sports. The players go through the motions for 3 and a half quarters then attempt to half-heartedly turn it on late. Don’t believe me? DVR tonight’s Heat-Bobcats game, then DVR a Heat playoff game. The difference in intensity is almost embarrassing. In the playoffs players value every possession like it’s the last, in the regular season it’s like they have reservations after the game at Benihana. Some would argue baseball because of its length is worse, but they would be incorrect. Sure, 1 game out of 162 may mean a little less in the scheme of things, but there are only 4 playoff teams per league and maximum effort is delivered by the players every game. It’s not like Albert Pujols is going to decide one day, eh, I’m not going to swing today the way Kobe has pulled stunts where he refuses to shoot. Chase Utley isn’t going to lay down at second base for 8 innings and only try in the 9th the way that, well, Robert Horry’s entire career has gone. If you don’t like baseball, or find it boring, that’s your call, but you are getting good effort night in and night out.
The one thing that the owners have going for themselves is what I call the hate factor. As I connect and converse with more and more sports fans, it’s depressing that many of them downright hate their home lives. Whether they hit the bar for happy hour, play in as many rec sports leagues as possible, or relish being out from sunset to sundown on Sundays, these guys do everything in their power to spend as much time away from home as they can. The hate factor may be a primary reason for owners not being too worried about declining attendance, but they are getting a little edgy.
They may be blaming it on the economy, but more and more stadiums are looking at offering FanVision units to their patrons. FanVision, if you haven’t heard, Is a handheld device that streams replays, other games going on around the country, and allows for user customization for fantasy tracking. Smart phones with apps are also being pushed by professional leagues to allow for game tracking and a better stadium experience. While these devices are a step in the right direction, due to perpetual cost and league or location imposed restrictions, they aren’t game-changers, yet. Maybe leagues will start to realize that things like FanVision are not simply ways to dip into the pocket and extract money from fans, but instead necessities to keep the once-secular, now-nationally interested fanbases happy and willing to leave their leather recliners and Fan Caves to sit in 10 degree weather and watch Jake Delhomme throw a few picks.