Never thought we'd see this headline: "NFL scrambles to fill seats"
It's in The Wall Street Journal, and it's not from the 1940's. It ran this weekend, and what it does is confirm what many of you say to your buds at the corner bar: watching a game on TV is better than being there in person.
Green Bay is the exception--as is almost always the case. Smallest NFL town. Most rabid fans. Gi-normous waiting list for season tickets. Nothing but sell-outs for decades. Still, the Journal's numbers show the Packers are filling Lambeau at a just-under 97% clip--not quite capacity.
Lambeau Field, by design, tradition and coincidence, is an NFL destination and an experience unlike any other in sports. The six-hour pre-game tailgate has to be seen to be believed, as is the rest of the pre-game culture. The intimacy of the stadium, the knowledgeable and friendly fan base make football a celebration as well as an education. And, there's something about seeing a major professional sport in what amounts to a Wisconsin neighborhood where you're minutes away from seeing silos and cows on the drive home.
Other teams without the legacy, recent track record, or fan-friendly venue are feeling the pinch that comes when the comfort of the couch at home in front of a HD TV wins out over a less-than-fan-friendly venue where food is overpriced, sight lines are poor and replays are at a premium.
Something else is in play here, too, a factor I didn't see in the Kevin Clark's Journal piece: fantasy football. For some of us, it's about bragging rights. Others play for big money. For many fans, it's an obsession and the information beast needs to be fed, certainly between noon and six p.m. when most of your players are in action. Sure, everyone is watching the Packers but how many of us aren't spinning the dial or working the smart-phone to keep an eye on the Ravens and Jaguars, dying to know if Maurice Jones-Drew cracked 100 yards yet? It's hard to track your fantasy fortunes inside most NFL stadiums--hence the free Wi-Fi so many franchises are now talking about adding.
You can't grow if you're standing still which is why the Packers keep Lambeau a work-in-progress. They're adding seats and scoreboards in both end zones--no matter what, there's always an appetite for Green Bay tickets.
The scoreboards are meant to bolster the in-game experience, to make it more and more like the one you get at home. And, they contain tons of ads. That's found-money, revenue the team doesn't have to share. Same with the new banquet rooms that can be rented out year long.
Me thinks you should get used to seeing construction cranes and "pardon our dust" signs at the Frozen Tundra. Once one project finishes, it seems the team has another on the drawing board. Think Disney, where that which doesn't work gets phased and that which does gets enhanced and repeated.
It's still quite an investment to spend a Sunday in Green Bay. The tickets aren't all that expensive, relatively speaking, but driving from Milwaukee to Lambeau for a quality tailgating session means leaving at, say, 7 a.m. for a noon game? Then the drive home? What it the weather is something less than friendly--trust me, it gets more uncomfortable the older you get (think Brett Favre in that last game against the Giants). Sometimes, it's just easier to fire up the man cave, chill the beer, serve up the grub and stay at home where there are no lines to the bathroom and nobody sitting behind you with their knees in your back. Younger fans, meanwhile, have much higher expectations. They get everything digitally: news, weather and certainly their sports. They won't be happy if they're forced to be out of the internet pocket for six hours, wondering what else is going on while they're stuck inside a bowl, seemingly cut off from the rest of civilization.
This is what the NFL is up against: another seemingly invulnerable institution (like newspapers) being tested, tried and reshaped by digital technology. HDTV, the smartphone and the computer are enhancing the NFL experience. And, like everyone else, The Shield has to adapt to make the most of changing times while continuing to maximize its trusted revenue streams, even the most basic and seemingly assumed: the number of fans in the seats.