Before I get started, I think it will be fair to say some of what I will write may generate some reactions from eye-rolling to head scratching and even a few agreements after deep thought. A few ideas I have may be radical if not controversial to those deeply entrenched in their sport. The bottom line is we pay our hard earned dollars to keep these sports and its athletes rolling in the dough so in all fairness, we should see some of it coming back when they hit the field!
2011 may very well be remembered as the year that not one but 2 of the USA’s biggest sports venues, the NFL and the NBA, decided to have lock outs because the athletes and the owners had issues with the money made off of us, the spectators who buy the jerseys, the hats, the license plate frames, the annoying car flags, and most of all, game day tickets. Regardless of which side of the issue you are on over who is right or wrong in these lockouts, the question most of us don’t ask, is outside of lack of games, what about us as consumers?
In the last 40 years, all combined sports in the USA have locked out or gone on strike a total of 18 times with baseball striking the most and the NHL striking the least. This year has seen significant changes in the NFL; once all was resolved there was a flurry of player movement that one would not have seen in a normal off-season. Some say that teams far in the playoff race benefited from the lockout; others disagree.
When these lockouts occur, how well do fans react to the resolution? Let’s be honest, we are a forgiving bunch of fans. A lot of my friends got nervous as September got closer and there was almost no football and as soon as it was over, for a lot of us it was business as usual. We were willing to forgive, go to the games and buy the fan gear so as long as we had our game day Sunday. I wonder how many NBA fans will be so willing to go back once play starts on Christmas day knowing that this will be a short season? How many pundits will there be to tear down this year’s champion asking if there were a full season, would that still have won? Meh, just put the asterisk on this year’s NBA trophy now. But the biggest question is, just how much money will these venues lose from disgruntled fans (myself being one) because upon locking out some of us fans, lost our liking of the sport and just what can be done to win back fans? What would it take? Would it help to change the rules? Make it cheaper or cost effective? Perhaps find a way to make the game more exciting? Let’s take a look.
Make It More Affordable
The NFL makes 9 billion dollars annually in revenue. Read that first sentence again. After the lockout was settled, the players are almost getting ½ of that. The Owners are just getting over ½ of that. Fans get zero because we contribute it. But also attendance to games are down by 1% and have been going down for the past 3 to 4 years. The NFL would like for us to believe that TV is to blame for poor attendance but come on now…it’s expensive to go to games!!
No matter how you cut it, TV cannot substitute for actually being there.
According to this (seatgeek.com) the average price for a ticket to a game is $113. Anybody worth his salt also knows that we are not talking about the good seats on the lower level, this is the nose bleed section we are talking about here. You want to sit nice and close to the action you can double and triple those prices and worst yet, if you know someone that is a season ticket holder and have seen the face value of their tickets, you know that someone is making tons of money off of the secondary market. With a depressed economy and also with the NFL product being what it is, for better or for worse, some fans would rather opt to watch the game on the big screen and keep all of that dough in their pockets. While the NFL may have the shortest season out of all professional sports, what is wrong with making the game more affordable for people to come see? Prices for other sports are a bit cheaper to bear but nobody will willingly pay to go to games if the product they get isn’t up to par. The NFL is paying more and more big dollars to players who aren’t performing on the field and we, in a sense, are the ones financing them. Is Tim Tebow this good or really just playing against bad teams? How good is the 49ers record really? I agree that you get what you pay for but one shouldn’t have to break the bank to be a part of the experience and it’s even worse for teams that are perennial losers.
Stop Awarding Mediocrity & Subpar Performance
Speaking of losers, and this is where I will lose some of you, American sports needs to stop rewarding so much for so little. Huh? Yes. Every year in the NFL and NBA, the worst teams get first picks of the ‘best’ prospects. In some sense it’s fair because it helps some bad teams get better but not all of the time. Let’s look at some of the big names over the past few years: Jamarcus Russell, LeBron James, Stephen Strausberg, and Alexander Ovechkin. Some of these players made significant impacts for their teams, others may have done nothing more than made the game fun to watch. The question though, if some of these players could have gone to other teams that were doing good and getting better, how much could things have been different and for some of these players I named, we have already seen how different the teams were with and without them. Everyone likes to see teams and payers win but it sucks sometimes to see players go to subpar teams, do well while the team never really goes anywhere…Barry Sanders anyone? I would say, keep the salary cap and get rid of the draft. Let teams purchase players based on whether or not they can afford them within their means. It may also help keep some of these players from being overpaid millions while not performing. Again this is a system that seems to work well in European sports and has also shown that teams with smaller budgets on certain days can outperform teams with ‘All Star’ salaried squads…New York Yankees anyone?
Also, I may be in the minority on this but yes, while the Cowboys filled their new stadium last year and broke attendance records, how long will this last without perennial playoff runs and sub par seasons? I am all for great facilities to watch sports live but can anyone truly justify building new facilities when teams aren’t producing? What was even more sickening was what Jerry Jones did for the Super Bowl by charging fans to stand in shouting distance of the stadium. Out of 3 teams in Florida, the Buccaneers are the only team to have been and won a Super Bowl in 20 years. Was there really a need for them to bring in Jacksonville who has probably the worst attendance right now? Maybe if they had better seasons, people would show up rather than go to Disneyworld. Then you have the Detroit Lions, a team having one of the better seasons in over 10 years with a nice new shiny stadium in one of the poorest cities in the US. If they consistently have good seasons for the next 5 years, how do you get fans in your new expensive stadium when they are broke because the city has such a pitiful economy? Checkout this article for a comparison of stadium attendance across the NFL.
One of the most controversial moves I think could be instituted is one that most soccer leagues in the world practice called promotion and relegation.
Most of you will think I am nuts when you read further.
What would be done is take American teams (NFL has 32, MLB, NHL and NBA 30) take the bottom ¼ for the NFL and bottom 1/3 for the other teams and let them form a lower division. At the end of the season the 3 teams at the bottom of the top tier would fall to the lower league and the top 3 teams of the lower league would raise up and you stay there based on your quality of play. Hey, it’s worked for soccer for this long but the incentive of bigger fanbases, more money and more exposure would almost ensure that you wouldn’t have to watch the Dolphins lose twice a year to the Patriots or have you trying to find something else to do besides watch the Orioles get beaten up by the Yankees and the Red Sox multiple times a season. In a sense, it’s getting certain teams to play level caliber teams and if they get better and stronger, play within that level. This also means that teams like the Patriots would not have the opportunity to beat on the Dolphins and Bills twice a year and coasting through their division. Also, in my opinion, it would eliminate the NFC West (sorry Curtis C., I know you love your Niners!)
Change the Playoffs Format.
There is one reason why I love the Super Bowl. It’s a one and done game. Safety issues notwithstanding, the Super Bowl grants all teams one and only one chance to win it all. I think, even though a lot of people won’t say it, American professional sports could gain tons of fans if playoffs from all other sports were reduced to one game. Heck, look at NCAA Finals. March madness. 64 teams get one game to advance. Meaning no matter how good you are, if tonight is your bad night, you go home. If that was the case in professional sports, in this past year, Lebron would have finally gotten his ring and we wouldn’t have had to wait 7 games to know that the Rangers and Bruins should have stayed home. The NFL sells the most ads for the highest price for that one game and a high majority of America watches because we know if you miss That One Game live…then you missed it. If you miss one game of the World Series, you got at least 3 more to go. Also if the games are bad, it’s hard to retain TV coverage. The 2007 NBA Finals WITH Lebron James playing was the lowest ever. Would that be different if it was only one game? I think fans would be more excited about sports finals knowing that their team had one chance to get it right and the next chance won’t be until next season, and even then it’s not guaranteed.
Change the Pace of the Games.
This is mainly looking at the NFL and MLB. The NBA and NHL paces are just right for the amount of action provide, in my opinion.
In 2010 a study done by the Wall St. Journal showed a frightening realization. For a game that lasts roughly 2.5 to 3 hours (more if you factor in overtime) if you tally up all the plays in football from the snap to the time the whistle blows the play dead, there is actually only 11 to 13 minutes of total action per game. Commercials take up more time than that. Also if you factor in Replay Challenges (why do refs need to review EVERY touchdown now) it makes the games longer. Actually, if there was one thing I wish we could be rid of, it would be the extra point kick after a TD. A whole lot of people just stopped reading right here. Yes it’s a traditional part of the game but for something that is made 99% of the time, why waste time?
Now baseball is just a slow game. As much as I try to watch a game, I can’t stick around for longer than 3 innings. For a game that at times can be as low scoring as the NHL and soccer, there is nowhere near as much constant action for the score lines to reflect.
In conclusion, American sports needs to make some serious changes to retain and regain loyal fanbases. Sky rocketing prices for venues along with bad product on the field, coupled with lockouts are not the ways sports should go about keeping fans. Some of the changes may be minor, like lowering costs to make it affordable for fans living in a bad economy. More sweeping changes, like changing the way playoffs are formatted to radically changing the system, which separates winners and losers, may entice fans to come back to games they lost their love for. In the end it all comes down to what we are willing to pay for and with attendances declining and fans looking elsewhere for good valued entertainment, it’s a small hope that millionaires and billionaires of this industry start listening.