Though it remains robust, NFL attendance is trending downward. After peaking in 2007, gate counts declined in each of the next four seasons. They rebounded this season, but remained 1 percent lower than the high of five years ago.
“When somebody asks me to go to a game now, I’m reluctant,” said William A. Sutton, director of the sport and entertainment management program at the University of South Florida and an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan. “I’ve got the NFL Sunday Ticket package, my feet up on the La-Z-Boy, and beer is $3.99 for a six-pack at my house.”
On the rare occasions when Sutton does attend a live event, he finds himself trying to mimic the at-home viewing mode, despite his best efforts to keep his eyes on the field. Sutton recalled flying to Dallas last month to see the Steelers play the Cowboys and making a pact with his friends to watch the action on the gridiron, not on the stadium’s 11,520-square-foot screen.
No one kept the promise.
“[Steelers quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger was 15 feet tall,” Sutton said. “It was like watching the game at an IMAX, and I liked it. That was the sort of unique experience that made me say, ‘I’d like to do it again.’ ”
Traditionalists lament the advancing march of technology in sports. Dave Zirin, author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love,” said the Patriots’ initiative represents a widespread attempt “to turn stadiums from places where you get together with 50,000 of your closest friends and scream your head off to an environment where you have 50,000 people staring at their phones all the time.”
“I hate it,” Zirin said. “It makes me physically nauseous.”
But the Patriots and other local sports teams have concluded the best way to keep fans coming through the turnstiles is to cater to contemporary habits.
The Bruins and Celtics are working on a high-capacity Wi-Fi network at TD Garden. The Red Sox this season will test a loyalty program using mobile technology to track fans’ attendance at Fenway Park and then reward them for coming. One goal is to reduce no-shows, which have made a mockery of the team’s 793-game sellout streak and caused a drop in game-day revenue.
“We make money if people watch on TV, but when people come into the park, our per-cap [spending] is about 20 bucks a person,” said Heidi Labritz, the Red Sox’s director of business applications and a panelist at the technology summit in Foxborough this week. “So if we have 4,000 people that don’t show up for a game, even though they bought a ticket, it’s a lot of money [lost].”
No-shows haven’t been a problem for the Patriots, but the team’s push to make a stadium visit more attractive, like the Red Sox effort, is partly about maximizing game-day spending. For instance, Fred Kirsch, Patriots vice president of content, said apps that make it easier to buy concessions and merchandise will boost revenue.
“We’re going to give our fans opportunities to do things they couldn’t do just sitting in their seat,” Kirsch said. “Of course, that means more money for us.”