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Keeping fans in the stands is getting harder to do

Tuesday, 16 Jul 2013 | 1:56 PM ET
The SEC is looking into the deal that financed the construction of Marlins Park in Florida.
Marc Serota | Getty Images
The SEC is looking into the deal that financed the construction of Marlins Park in Florida.


Major League Baseball's All-Star game Tuesday night is set to draw a full house. Some 45,000 people are expected to fill all the seats of Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

But the game appears to be an exception rather than the rule this year when it comes to putting fans in baseball stands. MLB's total game attendance is down by 417,192 people so far compared with last year at this time, according to Baseball Reference.com.

In fact, live attendance in other U.S. sports—pro basketball and football, motor sports and even college football—has declined or leveled off the last three to five years.

"The drop-off in attendance for live sporting events is getting worse," said Lee Igel, a professor of sports management at New York University.

"You've got a lot of competing factors in this, even bad weather," Igel explained. "But with the economy still sorting itself out, there's the huge cost of going to live events plus fighting through traffic and parking just to get to the games."

"And even more important is the experience of watching games in the comfort of your home on a big screen without the hassle at a stadium," Igel said. "That keeps a lot of people away."

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Different sports, same problem—except hockey

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The fall off in baseball attendence has gotten so bad, that the Miami Marlins—the MLB team with the lowest attendance figure this year as well as the worst win-loss record—decided to close the upper bowl of their stadium for some upcoming home games.

Even baseball royalty, the New York Yankees, have seen a decline this year of nearly 2,500 fans per game and are selling half-off tickets through the online coupon service Groupon. Their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox saw their record 820-game sellout streak come to an end this summer.

This past season, several lower level National Basketball Association teams, like the Sacramento Kings, the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks, had major attendance drops. The Pistons averaged only 13,272 tickets sold per home game while playing in the 21,000-seat Palace arena.

To lure fans for a game against the NBA's Dallas Mavericks in early December, the Phoenix Suns offered a money-back guarantee on tickets, promising that fans could get a refund if they weren't satisfied with the team's performance, or even if the beer in the arena was flat.

The attendance drops have spread like a fan wave. A NASCAR auto race in March—the FC 500 in Bristol, Tennessee—had a reported attendance figure of 80,000 people, but that left a half-empty speedway that normally fills up with 160,000 for the race.

For 30 of 35 college football bowl games this past season, the average announced attendance was 46,278—down 5 percent from 2011-12 and 8 percent from 2010-11 through those same games.

Attendance at NFL games this past year was up slightly according to the NFL, but that was after some 4 years of decline. The league reached an all-time high in 2007—18,137.224 total attendance— but in 2011, dropped to its lowest level,17,391,163, since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.

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Only pro hockey, with its rabid fan base returning after a lockout and shortened season this past year, saw an attendance increase for a third consecutive season.

"All the major sports except hockey have major challenges getting people to attend live events these days," said Mark Conrad, a professor of sports law at Fordham Univeristy.

"Most sports can't just depend on die-hard fans to fill up seats," Conrad said. "They've had to offer a lot more than just the game."

Like a trip to Disneyland?

To entice fans—while forgoing money-back guarantees—stadiums have built mini theme parks for families while expanding traditional ballpark food like hot dogs, hamburgers and garlic fries to sushi, fresh sliced tuna and gluten-free and vegetarian offerings like gourmet salads.

"There are more firework nights, rock concerts and even religious nights in some parts of the country to bring people in," said Mark Conrad.

"It's more like a trip to Disneyland than a ball game," said Lee Igle. "The questions is, is this enough to bring fans in? Some that might just want to sit back and enjoy a game might think it's overload."

Expanding on the comforts of home theme, the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars are considering airing the league's RedZone Channel on its massive video boards, This would give fans at EveBank Field a chance to view any NFL game as soon as one team gets down within their opponent's 20 yard line.

"We know we are competing with ourselves when it comes to watching games at home or coming to the stadium," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "The RedZone Channel expands the stadium offerings."

"With 4-6 hours of pregame shows, the home big screens and the ability to change channels, the home experience is phenomenal," McCarthy said. "That's why we're doing everything we can to enhance the stadium experience, like possible cameras in the locker rooms that would show up on the stadium big screens and offering fantasy sports packages."

Fan enchancement also includes easier driving to the stadiums, said McCarthy.

"We're looking into how we can work with local officials to improve traffic patterns for fans and making parking easier," he explained. "We also want to have the best technology, like Wifi, so fans don't miss out on their tech needs."

Ticket prices keep rising

As for sports ticket prices, they've gone up over the years—and not without a touch of irony. As teams try to attract more fans with expensive top-tier players and new or refurbished stadiums, that's making it more costly to attend games.

According to research firm Statista, the average NFL ticket in 2012 was $78.38, a 2.5 percent increase from 2011. Tickets averaged only $67.11 in 2007.

The NFL's New England Patriots have the current highest average ticket price at $241.86.

The average price today for a Boston Red Sox ticket is $88, the highest among baseba;; teams, according to MLB. Topping the NBA average ticket price is the Los Angeles Lakers, at $169.80.

"All sports are aware of prices and very conscious of the issue," said the NFL's McCarthy. "We're (the NFL) looking at more flexibility for fans when it comes to paying for them."

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Many teams like the NBA's Orlando Magic and MLB's San Diego Padres are using dynamic pricing. This allows teams to lower or raise prices on game day tickets and fill up empty seats that haven't sold.

"It's a new way to bring in fans and sell tickets to games that wouldn't ordinarily sell," said Mark Conrad. "You can fill in seats at a reduced price and maybe get those fans to come back and pay more at another game."

An 'ongoing issue'

But offering dynamic pricing or a wide ranging sushi menus or a theme park with water slides or thousand of Wi-Fi outlets—or anything else sport execs can think of—is unlikely to give fans enough reason to show up in person, say analysts.

"The love of sports isn't going away in this country but I do think the decline in attendance will keep happening," said NYU's Igel. "Most people just don't have that type of discretionary income anymore to spend on sports."

"I do see this is as an ongoing issue," said Conrad. "The only real way to get fans in the seats is to have a winning team. And even that's no guarantee these days."

The NFL's McCarthy said he's hoping enough fans still see the difference between being at a live event and staying home.

"We know it's more comfortable sitting on a couch," he said. "But the players can't hear you from there."

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