In a 60 Minutes profile to be aired on Sunday night on CBS, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ties the recent explosion in TV viewership of pro football to the ongoing economic challenges in America.
“People want to feel part of a group, feel like they’re connected, and right now during these difficult times, they can turn on free television and watch the greatest entertainment that’s out there,” Goodell said. “They can forget their worries for just a few hours.”
The problem, of course, is that if too many people choose free television over paid attendance, the games won’t look as compelling because they’ll be played before stadiums with large patches of empty seats.
“Our biggest challenge going forward is how do we get people to come to our stadiums because the experience is so great at home,” Goodell says. “When you turn on [a football game], you want to see a full stadium.”
For the NFL, it’s a conundrum that could become a crisis. People love watching the game on TV in part because the background of a full stadium makes it feel like a big event. But with ticket prices and parking costs and weather and $8 beer and fans who have no problem drinking too many $8 beers and the inability to efficiently multitask and/or to use a clean, non-crowded bathroom, folks who already are feeling a financial pinch would rather gather with family and friends and watch the game at home.
Given the explosion in broadcast revenue, the NFL has two choices: (1) make the in-stadium experience better; or (2) in those cities where sellouts are a struggle, dramatically drop the prices of the tickets.
With fans serving essentially as extras in a big-budget TV extravaganza, the idea of soaking them for every last dollar in order to enhance the atmosphere for the home audience seems fundamentally unfair. If the league can’t make it better to attend the games in person, the league needs to make it cheaper.
The third option, of course, would be to use digital technology to make the seats look like they contain paying customers, even if they don’t. If it was once good enough for CBS to enhance golf telecasts with faux chirping, why not hire Industrial Light & Magic to cover up the red seats at Raymond James fans not with tarps but Tampa fans?
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Regardless, all options will be on the table if the ongoing growth of in-home viewing of NFL football eventually makes in-home viewing less interesting because of the lack of in-person fans with painted faces, fat guys wearing only a barrel, middle fingers in the Astrodome, and other, um, creative displays of enthusiasm.