Thursday, January 2, 2014

Packed Out

In the early days of underground mining, workers would take a canary with them into the tunnels to detect the presence of deadly gasses.  If the canary dropped dead, it was probably a good idea to head back to the surface.  The NFL may have it's own canary in the mineshaft with the potential blackout of a home playoff game at Lambeau Field.

I've mocked Packers fans' single-mindedness and obsession with the team in the past.  But it is that blind devotion to the organization that makes the potential failure to sell out a playoff game that concerning.  You can understand Cincinnati or Indianapolis struggling to sell out, there are other things to do there--but when Green Bay can't fill Lambeau, that should be cause for concern at the League offices.

This will be the first playoff game at Lambeau with the extra 10,000 seats in the upper deck of the south endzone.  Nearly all of those seats were sold on a seasonal basis--to those who had been on the waiting list for 40-years and didn't want to lose their spots--even if the seats aren't that great.  But when asked to pony up more for the playoffs (and not get that money back if the Packers didn't make it) many of those people weren't interested.  The same went for 40-thousand regular attendees who had a chance to gobble up the tickets starting on Monday--without the "down payment" requirement--but still didn't take the team up on the offer.  So what's going on?

The Lambeau Blackout would be a symptom of a larger problem affecting the NFL: the in-game experience really isn't that great.  Prices for everything from tickets to beer to food at the stadium are outrageous.  At Lambeau, despite two major renovations in the past 20-years, you still sit on a hard, aluminum bench (and with the growing "width" of Packers fans, the people on the ends--like my father--get about one-bun's worth of room).  The weather for the playoffs is usually miserably cold, or wet, or both.  But most importantly, the way fans follow the NFL is different that it was in the past.

I'm one of the millions who watch NFL RedZone Channel exclusively on Sundays.  Most of the viewers are Fantasy Football nerds who want to see every score in every game.  But I like being taken to the best action going on at any one time--regardless of who's playing.  You will never get that at the stadium itself.  And speaking of Fantasy Football--with those seasons now wrapped up, those "fans" have had their interest in the games reduced greatly--now that money and bragging rights are no longer on the line.

Is the NFL on the verge of becoming strictly a "made for TV event"?  Not in the immediate future.  But there is talk of doing away with the Blackout Rule--with members of Congress poking their noses into the issue.  And the proliferation of internet streaming allowing fans to choose their own games, camera angles, and stat trackers makes the at-home experience even better than being at the game itself.  If the NFL isn't careful, a partially empty Lambeau Field could become the norm--and not the rare exception.

Of course, with the billions of dollars they are getting from Fox, CBS and ESPN, TV ratings are probably more important than actual attendance anyway.

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