The Green Bay Packers are known for having some of the most loyal fans in the National Football League. The team's waiting list for season tickets is famous for being decades long, and it's a tradition for new Green Bay parents to sign up their babies as soon as they get a birth certificate.
But that wasn't enough to pack Lambeau Field for the team's first-round playoff game earlier this month. The Monday before the game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers had 40,000 tickets left unsold.
To avoid a TV blackout – networks won't broadcast from an empty-looking stadium – the Packers had to get a deadline extension from the NFL and rely on corporate sponsors to buy up tickets. The Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals also faced possible blackouts for their home playoff games, though both eventually sold enough tickets to stay on TV.
There were extenuating circumstances in the Packers case, including dangerously cold weather and a short selling window. But the issue is one facing the entire league: It's getting harder to get fans off their couches and into stadiums. Even Super Bowl tickets, the NFL's hottest property, have prices trending downward and loads of available inventory on the secondary market for the matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos in New York, according to Bloomberg. And the issue extends beyond football. With just three weeks to go until opening ceremonies, organizers are struggling to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets to events at the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February.
It's cold out there, and it's warm in here
In-game attendance in the NFL climbed 1.3 percent in 2013, but that increase followed five straight years of declines. Part of the problem is also the NFL's greatest asset and one that has turned it into America's most popular, most profitable sport: Football is great on television. "The home experience has gotten so much better," says Victor Matheson, a professor of sports and economics at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "Our living room is a much better place to watch a game than it was 30 years ago. Houses are bigger, and we've gone from 18-inch black-and-white TVs to huge HD flat screens that are more affordable than a season ticket."
In many cities, too, seats are getting prohibitively expensive. Ten NFL teams have average ticket prices that run more than $200 each on the secondary market, according to data from SeatGeek, a ticket search engine. Super Bowl tickets for the coming matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks will set you back a few grand, even for the worst seats in the house.
Combine those high prices with finicky weather and a more limited view (nosebleed seats don't have multiple camera angles), and the choice seems obvious to a growing number of football fanatics. "People rarely pay top dollar to be terribly uncomfortable," Stephen Walters, an economist at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, writes via e-mail.
Another issue: time. "The start-and-stop nature [of football] gives it gobs of time to make profit on commercials," Mr. Matheson notes. "A sport like soccer is harder to sell advertising for because it's a continuous game. With football, you have very long games with lots of holes for commercial time."
Those long, frequently interrupted games are key to the NFL's financial success (the league raked in $9.5 billion in revenue last year), but they can make the live experience tedious. "If I'm home watching on TV, I can make a sandwich, channel surf, but the crowd in the park is sitting, often in the cold, watching players stand around," Mr. Walters writes. "The NFL better be careful about depreciating the quality of the live version of its product just to sell more commercial time."
Some franchises are beginning to make changes to bring watching a game live into the 21st century. Teams including the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers plan to install bigger video boards in their stadiums, and many are making concessions to the rabid popularity of fantasy football by offering seating sections in which fans can view multiple games at once (as many do at home).
Matheson thinks that in the near future, "stadiums will become massively wired," with free Wi-Fi and smart phone compatibility so that "people can use their devices to have an in-stadium experience." He points to Barclays Center, the newly opened home to the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, which markets an application that lets audience members stream multiple camera angles though their smart phones or tablets.
Walters proposes upending the NFL's rigid ticket structures and introducing dynamic pricing, which would allow teams to adjust prices and offer incentives on the basis of demand as the season progresses – something that pro basketball and pro baseball have long practiced.
But even if zero improvements are made, the NFL's financials are so strong that it may not matter, even if we're looking at a future in which the Patriots and the Jets play on an audience-free soundstage. "There are occasionally soccer games in Europe played in closed stadiums due to violence issues," Matheson points out. "You don't have to have audiences to make entertainment work, and I also don't think you need it to develop a fan base."