Gridiron Godfather Roger Goodell's pigskin panties were twisted in a knot at the spring meetings last week. Your panties might bunch up, too, if you misplaced 782,000 paying customers and $60 million in revenue over the past four seasons.
Here's the problem, folks: Television ratings are better than ever and overall NFL revenue is the envy of the sports world. But the league is facing big trouble at the ticket window. NFL attendance has steadily declined since peaking in 2007. It hit bottom in 2011.
In fact, the past season was the NFL's worst for total attendance since 2001. And remember, back then, that many fans were frightented away from large arenas in the wake of 9/11. Oh, there were also just 248 NFL games in 2001. There were 256 games in 2011.
The average NFL game drew 64,698 paying customers in 2011. That was the worst average attendance since 1998. (See the attendance chart below.)
For a little perspective, the average crowd in the Southeastern Conference last year was about 77,000 (roughly 19 percent higher than the average NFL game).
The NFL boasted 782,499 more paying customers in the peak season of 2007 than it did in 2011. Given the fact that the average general-seating NFL ticket costs about $77, those 782,000+ lost customers equal about $60 million in lost revenue.
The lost revenue might be even greater when you consider that the average premium seat tops $240. (We don't know the ratio of general vs. premium unsold seats.)
The NFL is so wealthy it should issue its own currency. But even for the NFL, $60 million in lost revenue is tough to swallow.
Goodell essentally acknowledged, without outright admitting the issue, that the NFL has a problem with its live product during last week's meetings.
“We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding and we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums and use the same kind of technology,” said Goodell.
Pro football has always been an experience especially conducive to great home entertainment. It's well documented that television and the NFL came of age together. But the at-home experience has grown dramatically better in this age of high-tech comforts. We have TiVO, NFL RedZone, laptops, iPads and instant access to stats, press conferences and game reports, not to mention our favorite beer and our own bathrooms. What's not to love about an autumn Sunday in America spent hanging out with pals in front of the tube watching modern-day gladiators?
As a result, fans seem more content to watch from home than to go through all the trouble of paying to attend the game. Essentially, there were 3,000 more paying customers per game in 2007 than there were in 2011.
Goodell said the NFL is looking at some comprehensive overhauls of the live experience, including the addition of wi-fi at all NFL arenas. But it's going to take a lot more than wi-fi to compete with all the conveniences of home.
In either case, the NFL must do something dramatic to bring the Great American Couch Potato back into the arena. After all, that home experience, which generates such great ratings and great revenue for the league, will lose quite a bit of its appeal if fans suddenly find themselves watching games played in silent, half-empty mausoleums.
NFL Annual Paid Attendance Since 1998*
* Source: NFL Record & Fact Book