Has anyone else noticed that empty seats are becoming more and more common at NFL games? This sight, which we've noticed even at such hallowed locations as Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and FedEx Field in Washington, cannot be a pleasant one for Roger Goodell and the NFL braintrust. While it can be understood that Redskins fans might stay away during the Kirk Cousins auditions over the season's final weeks, seeing empty yellow chairs on Sunday night a few weeks ago when the Steelers beat the Bengals at home and and improved their playoff chances was truly surprising.
Okay, maybe they were all out for beer and brats at the concessions. That's always possible. But earlier this week ESPN reported that the Colts, Bengals, and Packers had yet to sell out their upcoming quarterfinal playoff games this weekend, and that those games-- playoff games, yet-- might be blacked out in the teams' home towns as a result.
Packer fans were quick to the defensive: apparently the team had sent out its postseason ticket order forms in early December, when the locals were 5-6 and Aaron Rodgers was still under doctors' care. Few indeed would shell out under those circumstances, and Cheesehead Nation firmly denies that "fear of the 49ers" had anything to do with the slow advance sales. Indeed, the last we saw, the unsold block had dropped from 40,000 to about a thousand, with those expected to go today-- and we're confident they will.
The Colts dodged the blackout bullet yesterday, thanks to the corporate folks at Meijer, whose fine gesture will allow military families a chance to see the game up close and personal. Similar acts of kindness toward our servicemen and servicewomen are being reported from Cincinnati, though their blackout risk remains as of this hour. Considering the Bengals have hosted exactly two postseason games since 1990, and the last was in 2009, this one is hard to figure.
In his fine book America's Game, author Michael MacCambridge differentiates the NFL's rush to embrace television with major-league baseball's concurrent stodginess as a key reason why pro football became the nation's number one spectator sport in the 1960s. "Why give our product away for free?" was the baseball lords' argument. The football people, epitomized by commissioner Pete Rozelle, realized that TV exposure sold not only the game, but the stadium experience, as well as the team and league brands, to previously untapped audiences. It was taken for granted that a good percentage of that audience would become interested enough to buy into the entire game-day experience, and that the remainder would be numerous enough that advertisers would pay top dollar to try and grab their attention. As we know, it all worked.
But the advent of high-definition TV, packages like "NFL Sunday Ticket," the proliferation of highlights from other games, and the incredibly sophisticated camera techniques now deployed by the networks give the TV viewer an experience that the fan in the stands can't match. Add to that the traffic, crowding, and winter weather conditions which accompany the stadium experience, and the increasing reports of dangerous parking lot conditions, especially after dark, and the disincentive side of the equation also gets heavier. Back in San Francisco we were on the waiting list for 49er season tickets; by the time we left the area twelve years ago it was already an open question whether we'd even want them if our number somehow came up. The consensus around here is that once, maybe twice, a season might be fun, but the rest of the time we'd rather watch the whole 14-game Sunday-afternoon circus from our command center-- uh, family room, that is.
Yes, the games are still selling out, for the most part-- but where are the people? We have to figure Goodell and his minions cringe whenever the camera reveals rows of empty seats during a late-season playoff-position battle. As perhaps the most interventionist commissioner since Bert Bell, will Goodell do anything about it?
Speaking of TV, we note this postseason is not exactly an advertising man's wet dream. Of the top ten markets in the league, only two-- Philadelphia and Boston-- are represented in the playoffs, while five of the bottom ten-- Green Bay, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and New Orleans-- made it. No Giants, no Cowboys, no Redskins. Sure, we know small-market teams like the Packers and Steelers, not to mention our mid-market 49ers, have fans all over the country, but when you consider numbers alone, how excited will the marketing people be over, say, a Bengals-Panthers Super Bowl?
Aren't we glad it's not our problem?
Just for fun, here are the 32 NFL teams ranked by size of home base, and presumed home TV audience, according to 2012 US Census figures. (We split NYC between the Giants and Jets, and split the Bay Area between the Niners and Raiders as well, then added San Jose to the 49er base. Of course, this can't take nationwide fan bases into account, but TV audience estimates have to be based on something.)
1. New York Giants 9,900,000
New York Jets 9,900,000
3. Chicago Bears 9,500,000
4. Dallas Cowboys 6,700,000
5. Houston Texans 6,200,000
6. Philadelphia Eagles 6,000,000
7. Washington Redskins 5,900,000
8. Miami Dolphins 5,800,000
9. Atlanta Falcons 5,500,000
10. New England Patriots 4,600,000
11. Arizona Cardinals 4,300,000
12. Detroit Lions 4,300,000
13. San Francisco 49ers 4,000,000
14. Seattle Seahawks 3,600,000
15. Minnesota Vikings 3,400,000
16. San Diego Chargers 3,200,000
17. Tampa Bay Bucs 2,800,000
18. St Louis Rams 2,800,000
19. Baltimore Ravens 2,800,000
20. Denver Broncos 2,600,000
21. Pittsburgh Steelers 2,400,000
22. Carolina Panthers 2,300,000
23. Oakland Raiders 2,200,000
24. Cincinnati Bengals 2,100,000
25. Cleveland Browns 2,100,000
26. Kansas City Chiefs 2,000,000
27. Indianapolis Colts 1,900,000
28. Tennessee Titans 1,700,000
29. Jacksonville Jaguars 1,400,000
30. New Orleans Saints 1,200,000
31. Buffalo Bills 1,100,000
32. Green Bay Packers 311,000