There’s an interesting development happening in professional sports—one that, it seems to me, should have team owners extremely worried.
It’s this: With ticket prices rising seemingly unchecked, and the quality of home entertainment systems rising, growing numbers of fans seem to feel that watching a game on their flat-screen (with 3-D?) for free is preferable to shelling out $100 for a ticket.
Consider the Mets. (If you must.)
The Journal reported yesterday that while the Mets’ home attendance has plummeted about 20% from last year—when the Mets introduced higher ticket prices, but also a new stadium, drawing curious fans—its TV ratings are doing extremely well.
For the more casual baseball follower, access to an LCD screen and other available technologies might make for a satisfactory simulation of a night at the park. Earlier this month, the Yankees played a game against the Seattle Mariners that the YES Network televised in 3D, and Sree Sreenivasan, the dean of students and a professor of digital media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, pointed out that more sports fans are accustomed to the “three-screen effect.” That is, they are watching a game on their televisions, following it on their laptops and talking or text-messaging about it on their cell phones.
In other words, hardcore fans might actually want not to be at the game, so they can multi-analyze what’s happening. Which makes the Yankees’ decision to ban iPads from Yankee Stadium—on the grounds that they “may interfere with and/or distract any sports participant” (huh?)—all the more asine.
(The Yankees ban so much from Yankee Stadium, they might as well just go ahead and ban the fans.)
But how many casual fans will pay the price of a ticket?
Some team owners are clearly cognizant of this dilemma: As the Times reports today, in their new stadium, the Giants and Jets are countering the quality of home TV by installing larger and more video screens around the stadium.
In recent years, television coverage of the National Football League has become so rich and detailed that teams and stadiums have no choice but to respond with their own technology plays. Last spring the league’s commissioner,Roger Goodell, said the experience for fans in stadiums needed to be elevated to compete with television broadcasts, to keep fans engaged — and to keep them buying tickets — in a challenging economic climate.
The Giants and Jets are also creating iPhone apps pertaining to the game that will only work from inside the stadium. (Apparently they won’t be banning iPads.)
This may work, but I wonder. I haven’t been to the new Cowboys stadium, with its massive video screen—it’s about 80 yards long—that hangs like a LED zeppelin (sorry) over the field, but I’m sure that I’d find the screen distracting. As anyone who’s ever been to a rock show with video screens over the stage can tell you, it is oddly easier to watch the video than to watch the actual performers/players.
Then again, football has to do something, because for most people who aren’t completely football-obsessed, watching football on TV is really a better experience than going to the game. You can see what’s happening better, you have more access to relevant information (injuries, debated calls, etc.), the food is better and cheaper, there’s no traffic coming home from New Jersey.
So we may be moving towards some sort of multi-tasking viewing experience, in which watching a game means watching the field some of the time and electronic media the rest of the time. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me. But will people pay hundreds of dollars a ticket to multi-task as they would at home?
Or—and this is what I’d like to see—declining attendance because of high ticket prices will force the owners to get tough on salaries and cut ticket prices, and games may actually become somewhat affordable again. That’s probably the least likely outcome.
I have no idea which way this will go, but here’s one scenario that would be wonderful: Instead of spending so much time watching games, maybe Americans will spend more time playing them.