The Root of the NFL’s Attendance Problem

After spending a season in Tampa working for the Buccaneers and now being on the outside of the NFL again, I’ve really had some great perspective through the past few years. It’s unique and I’ve learned a lot from it.

On the inside of an organization, the day to day can be very grueling, especially during a losing season. When things are going well it makes work run a lot smoother. It feels as if you’re swimming with the current, rather than against it when you’re losing. With each loss, support wanes and criticism grows. It feels as if your organization is being skewered from every direction by the media and fans.

I remember reading articles on Pro Football Talk and feeling as if they were taking shots at my team as we stumbled through our 10 game losing streak. I hated reading those articles even if the shots were accurate and deserved. But this was this team I worked for. These were the people I worked with and the organization that had believed in me enough to give me my first job in the NFL. Even though I had zero responsibility for the on-field product, I still felt as if the shots at my team were really shots at me and my family. Much like a family, it was acceptable for one of our own to make fun of something that happened, but it was personal if it came from outside the building.

Then I was fired from my job and I became a fan. Well, not at first. Like all breakups, it took time to get over the shock and hurt of being let go. Eventually I came to terms with it and accepted that it was a blessing to even get to do what I did in the first place. When pain subsided and I returned to being a fan of the Buccaneers, I realized I cared more about them than I had before. I had an emotional connection. That emotional connection was something that would be extremely hard to break no matter what happened.

Now, even as I see my Buccaneers at 0-6, I still want them to win. I want them to crawl out of the muddy-undisciplined-penalty filled-zone playing-no 2nd half point scoring rut that they’ve been in. Even if that means that it might save the job of a head coach that I don’t believe is right for this team.

I care about this team. That’s the epitome of being a fan – having an emotional connection to a team. Teams like Oakland, St. Louis, and Tampa – the 3 worst teams in terms of percentage of the stadium filled – lack a subjective connection to their fans. Attendance is a growing issue for all NFL teams and if they don’t learn to increase and cultivate that emotional connection then they’ll continue to see empty seats adorn their stadiums.

When a person is sick, a doctor doesn’t just treat the symptoms, he treats the cause of the problem. Lowering ticket prices, concessions, and offering new in stadium experiences is only treating the symptoms of the problem. The cause is that fans simply don’t care enough to make it out to the games.

Of course, winning always helps. But why does winning help? Because fans begin to care about the team when they’re relevant or pushing for the playoffs. They jump on the bandwagon because it’s fun to care about a team that’s winning. They can tell their friends they’ve been cheering for that great team that everyone else is seeing put up numbers in the win column. It’s self-validation in the same manner as when people post on Facebook and then wait to see how many likes they get.

It is the job of NFL teams to create an emotional connection to the fans, not vice versa. Teams in Florida struggle with attendance prodigiously because a vast majority of the population of Florida has migrated from the north, specifically the northeast. Ask any Bucs ticket sales executive. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are always the easiest games to sell tickets to. The fans from there have an emotional connection to those teams and show up to the game to show their support. The loudest I ever heard Raymond James Stadium was when the Steelers came to play in Tampa and the stadium had as many Pittsburgh fans as it did Bucs fans (and probably more).

The only home game that Tampa Bay has sold out this season was against the Eagles. The Bucs were 0-4 at the time. As of 7:00pm on Tuesday night, the Bucs home game against the Panthers on Thursday night – a nationally televised game against a good team – still has tickets in nearly every section left.

It pains me to say it, but people in this area just don’t care. There’s no emotional connection.

But it’s fixable. The NFL needs to stop treating the symptoms with cheaper (yet still expensive) beer, free wifi, and gratuitous in-game video of the locker room. Treat the cause. Help fans care enough to want to pay the price of admission to support a team they truly love.

Over the weekend I watched a few college football games and it really struck me how much more of an atmosphere there is before the game ever even starts. The pageantry is phenomenal. There is so much emotion involved. I get chills just thinking about Virginia Tech storming out of the tunnel to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Wisconsin fans leaping to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” (Jump! Jump! Jump!) just before the 4th quarter begins, is so hype-inducing even the opposing team can’t help but to participate on the sidelines. Clemson storming down the hill. The “dotting of the I” at Ohio State. When I think about those moments, I feel something.

When I think about the pregame atmosphere at most NFL stadiums, I’m completely unaffected.

Some teams have traditions that make a trip to their stadium memorable. Kansas City’s “Home of the Chiefs” was eardrum popping even in a preseason game. The Ravens had Ray Lewis’ dancing introduction. The NFL has such a corporate feel to it. It’s drab.

Why would a fan spend a significant portion of a hard earned paycheck to go see an NFL team every other weekend? Especially when he or she could flip on the TV and watch a couple games at once and track their fantasy team at the same time?

Because it’s justified. Not through logic, but through emotion. “Because I want to.”

If we’re being honest, fans get a better view watching the TV broadcast than 90% of the seats in a stadium. The beer is cheaper and the food is often better. He or she can flip games when commercials come on and keep the influx of football pouring into their brain while simultaneously overloading it with fantasy football on their laptop or phone. There really is no logical way to justify the trip to the stadium.

It’s like when you’re in a relationship and you truly love someone, you make excuses for their faults. You put up with the parts you don’t love so much because you love the rest of it so much. It’s the same with a football team. “Sure the QB isn’t so great, or the team isn’t doing so well, but I still love them – through thick and thin.”

To help create this emotion, NFL teams need to find avenues to connect with fans. There are small experiences that mean the world to fans. One of the things I loved about our Head Coach Raheem Morris was that he understood that 30 seconds of his time talking to a group of fans could have a positive effect on them long after he left their presence. Even just saying “hi” and taking a picture with a family that was at a training camp practice was a feeling and a memory that would last with them.

Even though the NFL’s target demographic is 20-40 year olds, they should also have a conscious effort towards marketing to children. Kids are a very influential part of the family. Parents spend excessive amounts of money on toys and candy simply because their child asks for them. Why not appeal to someone who has that influence? For teams like those in Florida, it’s as important to build a pipeline as it is to draw interest in now. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have a cartoon commercial that stars my franchise player that plays on Saturday mornings between Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.

As Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says, “Everything in this world is sales and marketing.” Sales people are taught to appeal to logic and emotion. If a sales person can’t appeal to the logical side of someone, they can tap into the emotional side.

If an NFL team can’t create that emotion through wins, then they need to create that emotion in other ways or else they’ll keep struggling to fill their stadiums.

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