A $25.4 billion industry growing at 6.4% per year would seem to be the very definition of health. Yet, for major professional sports in America, these financial successes mask a deeper problem. A 2012 report from WR Hambrecht + Co. indicates that the record revenues that the NFL, NBA, and MLB are enjoying today are primarily the result of lucrative broadcasting deals. This same report also highlights that in-game attendance has been dropping year over year, to the point where NFL teams on average only make 15% of their revenue from ticket sales—even with rising ticket prices.
This phenomenon is not entirely surprising. A recent article by ESPN’s Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell, illustrates what many in the industry are saying: the experience of watching on TV is often better than going to games in person. The TV offers unparalleled views, along with a level of convenience that the in-game experience can never match. This might beg the question, "So, what’s the issue—teams get their money while fans get to stream HD super-slow mo replays directly to their phones?"
The problem is that no one wants to watch a game that’s played in an empty stadium. Leagues take this issue so seriously that just last year the NFL threatened to blackout first round playoff games for the Packers, Colts, and Bengals if the home team didn’t sell all of its tickets.
Teams are now moving past Bobblehead night by investing heavily to entice fans back to the seats. Billions are being spent erecting state-of-the-art stadiums. Team owners are jockeying over who has the biggest flat screens. Franchises, such as the Nets and 49ers, are installing complex Wi-Fi networks so that fans can SnapChat and order drinks without leaving their seat. Yet the reality of these efforts is that fans are spending more time looking at screens, rather than soaking up the game and atmosphere that’s right in front of them.
There’s an opportunity, instead, to use technology to enhance the in-game experience and immerse fans in the atmosphere, while deepening their connection to the games and teams they love. Below are a few existing solutions—and a few tech concepts—that could help teams rebuild that stadium experience and provide a deeper value for the fans.
You coughed up $40 to get in the door, ran out of breath as you trudged up countless sets of stairs, blew $9 on a recovery beverage, yet as you turn around in your nosebleed seats you immediately remember why you braved the crowds and tested your endurance—because the stadium is electric. What you can’t fathom is why you skimped on the ticket, as you strain to see who it was that just sent the crowd into a frenzy with a base-clearing double. You also can’t help but notice it’s the bottom of the fourth and there are a pair of seats three rows behind the dug-out that have been empty since the first inning.
Instead of lamenting your thrifty decision or trying to sneak your way past ushers to claim the unused seats, solutions such as Sonic Notify and MLB’s Mobile Seat Upgrade are allowing basketball and baseball fans to upgrade their seat during the game. Not only does this open up new revenue streams for any professional sports team, it also gives fans the ability to craft the experience they want, empowering them to get up-close and personal, creating a once-in-a-lifetime memory.
As soon as you arrive at the stadium, you begin to feel the energy of the crowd: the noise, the electricity, the camaraderie. Wanting to be a part of it, imagine if you could open a "6th Man" app which pushes you information and content specific to your location? During player introductions, it alerts you to point your screen towards the crowd, with the app turning each fan’s screen into a single pixel that joins with thousands of others to create an animation that blankets the crowd. During the game, the app reaches out to fans behind the basket, coordinating their movements and cheers to distract an opposing player during a set of critical free throws. Then as the game is winding down, and your team needs one more stop to close out the game, the team captain uses a timeout to send a Vine asking each fan to do their part to give the team a jolt of energy to help pull out the victory. Rather than using smartphones in a way that removes people from the experience, technology has the opportunity to connect fans to each other and make them a part of the action.
The football game is winding down, your team is down 14, and the odds of them pulling it out are looking slim. You’re faced with a dilemma that does not exist with the in-home experience. Do you bail on your team and save yourself hours of post-game traffic, or do you stay for the potential of a big comeback? What franchises don’t understand is that the experience does not end when the game ends; in fact this is often the most painful part of it. Once the game wraps up, fans are rushed out past boarded-up concession stands and impatient ushers as expeditiously as possible. The message this sends to patrons is essentially, "Thanks for your money...now get out."
One community has turned this miserable experience into an opportunity. Tailgaters invest significant amounts of their time and money in creating elaborate setups that celebrate their teams, and craft a rich experience that extends the festivities before and after the game. Similar to AirBnB, an app could connect fans looking for the after-party with tailgating hosts who want to share their passion. This micro-economy would help tailgaters pay for the brats, while hopeful tailgaters would have a place to go, building a deeper community through more meaningful experiences.
At the end of the day, being at the game isn’t about having the best view or the most comfortable seat. The point of being at the game is being at the game—soaking up the sights and sounds, feeling the power of thousands of passionate fans, and connecting with your team. Once teams start recognizing that tickets are not a loss-leader, and bring innovations that embrace being there, fans will start flocking back and filling the seats once again.