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When will technology undercut sports attendance?

[ 145 ] December 26, 2013 |

Here are two assertions that don’t seem contestable:

(1) The cost of attending most major sporting events has been rising in real terms for decades.

(2) The cost of watching most major sporting events via remote technology has been plunging, especially in recent years.

The second point might require a bit of elaboration. “Cost” in this context means the relation between the price of watching a sporting event other than by attending in person, and the quality of that experience. That experience has been improving at a very rapid rate in recent years: for example, watching a high definition broadcast of a sports event on a 50-inch screen costs a sports fan today perhaps one-twentieth of what purchasing such an experience would have cost a decade ago. (HDTV is an especially superior technology for sports viewing).

In addition, the variety of games available for remote viewing, and the technologies available for viewing them other than standard televisions (computers, mobile devices etc.) are vastly superior to what they were even a few years ago.

As a simple matter of economics, these trends can’t both continue indefinitely. 40 years ago the average NFL ticket cost $30 in 2013 dollars: this year the average is probably over $100 when you include the cost of private seat licenses. And the cost of parking and concessions has risen even faster than ticket prices. Meanwhile a giant television with a superb picture costs in real dollars what what a 12-inch portable black and white TV that pulled in a fuzzy broadcast of two games per weekend cost a generation ago, and you can for a fairly modest price watch literally every NFL game of the season on your IPhone if you so desire.

On the other hand . . . people have been predicting that broadcasting sports events would kill the live gate ever since the invention of television, and pretty much precisely the opposite has happened: as more sports have become available on TV (and now through other technologies as well), the live gate for major sports events, in America at least, has continued to grow.

Still, it must be true that there’s a tipping point. Whether we’re beginning to see the signs of such a tipping point is an open question, but it’s perhaps notable that both NFL and major college football attendance has dipped a bit over the past few years.

I would guess that football is much more vulnerable to the live gate being undercut by viewing technology than baseball for a couple of reasons:

(1) The experience of watching baseball is much more degraded, aesthetically speaking, by remote viewing than that of watching football (In this regard basketball, which is pretty much perfect for TV, should be even more vulnerable, while hockey should be even less vulnerable than baseball).

(2) Football is played in terrible weather far more often than baseball.

But again, while it seems that live attendance at major sports should suffer from the combination of rising prices for actual attendance and the declining cost of remote viewing, there’s still little evidence this is actually beginning to happen in a significant way. Still, this now more than 20-year-old passage from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch remains resonant:

THE MATCH
COVENTRY v ARSENAL
13.12.87

Pete and I left around twelve, I guess, for a three p.m., Sunday afternoon kick-off, and got there just in time. It was an awful game, unspeakable, a nil-nil draw in freezing conditions … and it was live on television, so we could have stayed at home. My powers of self-analysis fail me completely here: I don’t know why we went. We just did.

I didn’t see a live League game on television until 1983, and neither did anyone else of my generation. When I was a kid there wasn’t so much football on TV: an hour on Saturday night, an hour on Sunday afternoon, sometimes an hour midweek, when our clubs had European games. We got to see an entire ninety minutes only very rarely. Occasional England games were shown live; then there was the FA Cup Final, and maybe the European Cup Final … two or three live club games a year, maximum.

That was obviously ridiculous. Even Cup semi-finals, or Championship deciders, weren’t televised live; sometimes the stations weren’t even allowed to show us highlights. (When Liverpool just pipped QPR for the Championship in 1976, we got to see the goals on the news,but that was all; there was a whole set of incomprehensible rules about TV coverage that no one understood.) So despite satellite technology,and colour televisions, and 24-inch screens, we had to sit with our ears pressed against transistor radios. Eventually the clubs realised that there was big money to be made, and the TV companies were happy to give it to them; the behaviour of the Football League thereafter has resembled that of the mythical convent girl. The League will let anybody do anything they want – change the time of the kick-off, or the day of the game, or the teams, or the shirts, it doesn’t matter; nothing is too much trouble for them. Meanwhile the fans, the paying customers, are regarded as amenable and gullible idiots. The date advertised on your ticket is meaningless: if ITV or BBC want to change the fixture to a time more convenient to them, they will do so. In 1991, Arsenal fans intending to travel to the crucial match at Sunderland found that after a little television interference (kick-off was changed from three to five),the last train to London left before the game finished. Who cared? Just us, nobody important.

I will continue to attend televised games at Highbury, mostly because I’ve already paid for my ticket. But, sod it, I’m not going to travel to Coventry or Sunderland or anywhere else if I can sit at home and watch the match, and I hope lots of other people do the same. Television will notice our absence, one day. In the end, however much they mike up the crowd, they will be unable to create any atmosphere whatsoever, because there will be nobody there: we’ll all be at home, watching the box. And when that happens, I hope that the managers and the chairmen spare us the pompous and embittered column in the programme complaining about our fickleness.

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Comments (145)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I gave up watching Professional Sports long ago. I just cannot enjoy the game when it is so clearly all about the money and not the game.

    • rea says:

      Gosh, do you read books where the authors get paid for writing them?

      • MAJeff says:

        If only Bach had turned down those commissions.

        • He was a jailbird, after all:

          Through the help of Duke Ernst August, Bach was introduced to the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and as a result he was offered the post of Capellmeister, which he accepted. This infuriated the Duke of Weimar, so that when Bach put in a polite request for his release, he was arrested and put in the local jail. However, after a month, he was released and given reluctant permission to resign his office. During this enforced rest, Bach typically used his time productively, and prepared a cycle of organ chorale preludes for the whole year, published later as the ‘Orgelbüchlein’.

      • Anonymous says:

        I suppose its a question of value. I don’t mind paying fifteen bucks to read a Harry Potter book. It is a great read, stimulates the imagination, can be read and enjoyed by my kids, and if Rawlings becomes a billionaire because of her genius . . . more power to her. Paying $500 for a few hours in a Stadium watching a bunch of Steroid laden freaks running in to each other just doesn’t do it for me. Under a hundred . . . maybe . . for the getting together with friends. But for the $500, I would rather take the family on a far more enjoyable road trip to see the largest ball of Yarn in the world. Professional Sports, esepcially football, has, from my viewpoint, become a repugnant display of Capitalism at its worst. But yea, a day at the ball park for a baseball game . . if the tickets are reasonably priced . . is a fun thing to do.

        • Anonymous says:

          But I will say I love watching the Olympics. Young athletes at their best . . doing it for the glory of competition and winning. If they can turn that into dollars down the road by marketing their talent . . doesn’t change who they are or what they have accomplished.

        • Brenda says:

          Paying $500 for a few hours in a Stadium watching a bunch of Steroid laden freaks running in to each other just doesn’t do it for me. Under a hundred . . . maybe . . for the getting together with friends. But for the $500, I would rather take the family on a far more enjoyable road trip to see the largest ball of Yarn in the world

          Wow, if the NFL has lost their core fan base like you, clearly they should be worried.

  2. Scott P. says:

    On the other hand . . . people have been predicting that broadcasting sports events would kill the live gate ever since the invention of television,

    Long before that, in fact. Radio broadcasts of baseball were almost non-existent before 1939, and some teams, such as the Yankees, resisted until the later 1940s.

    • Baseball used to be telegraphed to distant parts of rural America where there was a telegraph line

      It was a two-person effort: One person to take down the plays as they happened and then another person takes it outside to read it to the waiting crowd.

      • Jean-Michel says:

        Not just rural areas either—it isn’t as if people in cities were exceptionally privileged in this respect. If you weren’t in the ballpark, your only option for live coverage was to find somewhere with a tickertape setup (which was quite often a gambling parlor) and listen to somebody read out the info as it came in. Ideally there’d be a scoreboard as well. I think Eight Men Out has a scene depicting this.

  3. I heard a fellow in his 20s say the same thing, he follows college sports instead.

  4. LeeEsq says:

    What I think will happen is that watching professional sports live would become the equivalent of watching live professional theatre. Plenty of people will still want to watch games live but economics would make it an activity for rare occassions, tourists, or the rich.

  5. RepubAnon says:

    Maybe the stadiums can combine with massive multi-player online gaming technology, and create a virtual stadium presence. The expensive seats will remain for the 0.1% and businesses – the rest of us can telecommute. Speakers , microphones, and cameras in each seat can interact with your smart glasses to provide the sensation of being at the game.

    Perhaps a device can even spill beer down the back of your neck at random intervals – for that true game experience.

    On a side note: it has long been cheaper to buy a large-screed HDTV (and really good beer and sausages) than it is to purchase Super Bowl tickets. The same holds true for taking your entire family to a football game.

  6. Denverite says:

    Also note that baseball tickets are signficantly cheaper than football tickets. You usually can get in the park for under $20, and get a great seat for under $50. I’ve long wondered whether the price discrepancy is intended to attract different types of fans — baseball wants families with children, whereas football wants young, single people (mostly men). All I know for sure is that football is so expensive that the idea of taking my family is essentially impossible. It would be at least $500+ all in, and depending on how many beers and souvenirs we purchase, it might start closing in on four figures.

    • LeeEsq says:

      Baseball is also a lot less popular than football and basketball, so they might not be able to charge the high prices even if they wanted to. Baseball and basektball do seem to attract less rowdy crowds than the average football game though.

    • skeeball says:

      Probably my fault for living in an expensive market, but it seems to me like even baseball tickets are getting out of control. Last summer, my parents and I decided to a Mets game. We probably do this once every few years and figured it was ok to splurge a little and paid $150/ticket for seats that were OK but nothing special. The type that my dad probably paid $20-30 for when he took me to games when I was a kid. When we were in line, there was a father who had taken his two young kids who was visibly agitated about the minimum price of tickets. It looked like it was more than he planned or could afford. Its really a pity. To me going to a baseball game isn’t even really about the game. Its about the experience of sitting outside in nice summer weather with friends and family, while having a beer and a hot dog and maybe some other junk food (also worth noting here that a beer and a hot dog and some other random item like cracker jacks can easily add $20 in costs).

      I have been quite satisfied with my experiences at minor league baseball games lately. Compared to the price of Mets tickets, if you go to their low-A affiliate the Brooklyn Cyclones, you can get the best tickets in the stadium for around $20 and the worst for about $10. Those seats are no more than 200 yards apart. If you go on a Thursday, they throw in a free promotional jersey (they have 5 or 6 Thursday home games a year). The food prices are reasonable. The Staten Island Yankees stadium is right off the ferry and the seats all have a great view of the Manhattan skyline. For me, these games have the total experience I’m looking for at a game for no more than 1/10th of the cost.

      For football, I can’t even imagine wanting to go to a game any more. At home with red zone channel and wifi, for less than I’d spend on going to a game, I can invite my friends over and I have: heat, a better view of the game, better food, better beer, total information about other games for those who play fantasy football or have gambling problems interests, shorter lines for the bathroom, and no stadium traffic. My friends are free to drop in for as much or as little of the games as they want. Maybe I’m just agoraphobic, but I’d rate the experience much higher.

    • Jay C says:

      Also: MLB teams play 162 games in a season (ex-playoff/WS): pro footballers just 16. When you have 81 games to stretch out your butt-per-seat-per-game payout calculations vs. just 8, it’s a lot easier to be able to cut down the per-ticket price to get more fans in. Even allowing for the (usually) larger capacity of football stadiums.

      Though as skeeball points out below, a day at the ballpark can still be pretty steep: though of course, patronizing the Mets means you’re probably paying off Bernie Madoff’s crooked losses ad infinitum….

      • skeeball says:

        In 1958, the Dodgers went west, in 1962 the Mets were born and filled a hole in my dad’s heart. Twenty some odd years later I was born and was saddled with this team.

    • efgoldman says:

      I’ve long wondered whether the price discrepancy is intended to attract different types of fans

      A [major league] baseball team plays 81 home dates in roughly six months, in stadiums that, for the most part, seat fewer than 50,000. An NFL team plays eight home dates (not counting “preseason” and playoffs) over four months, in stadiums that, for the most part, seat over 65,000. The economics are different.

  7. LeeEsq says:

    Anybody have any idea on why the costs of major sporting events or concerts has been rising for decades. Part of it could be a supply or demand but it wasn’t like seating was more abundant when there were fewer alternative ways to enjoy major sporting events. Stadiums are more luxurious than they were in the past but local governments and corporations subsidize much of the building costs, so owners don’t need to charge to cover money lost in building the stadiums. The concessions are obviously more elaborate than the hamburgers, hotdogs, and cheap beers of the past but ticket holders have to buy concessions seperately so concession costs don’t require subsidizing.

    • Denverite says:

      My guess is that it’s part of the same trend we’ve seen of high end luxury goods increasing in price faster than inflation. Start giving rich people a bigger share of the pie and they’re going to start bidding up the prices of rich people goods.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Or it might simply be that ticket prices are high for major sporting events simply because its what the market will bear. High ticket prices certainly do not seem to be hurting business.

        • Brien Jackson says:

          In a whole lot of places (my local Baltimore market being one of them) you can even make a good case that tickets are still underpriced. The Ravens haven’t not sold out a game since 1996, there’s a waiting list for season tickets, etc. Demand is pretty clearly outpacing supply to a huge extent here.

          • pete says:

            That argument, valid on its own terms, does not take into account the social desirability of community engagement. Which figures, in this country at this time, but is seriously undercut by owners’ demands for tax breaks.

              • LeeEsq says:

                I think he means that having a bunch of people come together to watch a major sporting event is a good in itself because it repersents communal bonding or something like that. Therefore, tickets should be cheap somehow.

            • LeeEsq says:

              Have ticket prices for any piece of live, commercial entertainment ever taken into community engagement into consideration? As far as I can tell, no.

              • pete says:

                Oh, hell no. But owners regularly claim that community benefit justifies their tax breaks.

                • LeeEsq says:

                  I think they mean that the community benefits from the jobs created directly and indirectly from the stadium rather than having a communal bonding experience. Their wrong but they aren’t being hypocritical by making this argument.

                • Breadbaker says:

                  Teams avoid actually hiring people by, for instance, bringing in unpaid labor to run concession stands. A nonprofit provides volunteers and the nonprofit gets a cut of the sales (after getting the volunteers food handling licenses). That this isn’t a scandal is beyond me.

                • Brien Jackson says:

                  Because…why?

              • pete says:

                Civic pride is one of the items they cite, quite regularly — “world-class city” and all that — which I suggest is evidence of a rather limited definition of community, as in “all my buddies can kick in several grand for the chance to buy season tickets, so that’s what we are offering to the community, a chance to be involved.” I’m not trying to be argumentative here, but to clarify. The jobs arguments are also, certainly, put forward.

          • LeeEsq says:

            The NYT had a fascinating editorial several months ago about how legalized secondary markets, i.e. scalping, is showing the real cost of rock concert tickets and making it harder to earn a living doing scalping.

            Apparently, the real cost of popular bands and musicians are expensive. Which led the editorial to ask an interesting ethics questions. Some artists like Bruc Springsteen specifically order that tickets to their shows sell bellow market value but charge a lot for concessions, this was called the cruise ship model. Other artists like Barbara Streisand charge market value but charge market rate for concessions. Who is more unethical?

            • Brien Jackson says:

              I would imagine that a large part of the purpose for selling tickets below market value is to try to get as many people in the venue as possible to enhance the experience. A lot of football pricing reflects this dynamic too.

              • LeeEsq says:

                Thats part of it. Another part of it is wanting to allow the less well off fans to see the show but gouge them for concessions.

                • Informant says:

                  Since nobody in their right mind buys stuff from the concession stands during a concert anyway, and certainly nobody is obligated to do so, it seems silly to call it “gouging.”

            • ajp says:

              I wouldn’t consider either unethical. But I think the Springsteen model is more defensible. Allows more people to get the experience, and the higher-priced concessions allow the attendees with more disposable income to partially subsidize the lower ticket prices. Seems perfectly fine to me and not in the least bit unethical.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        Stadiums have also gotten smaller with more seats sold to corporate types, constricting supply.

    • Malaclypse says:

      As a guess, I’d try tracking ticket costs not in real terms, but as a percentage of earnings of the top 10% of the population.

    • L2P says:

      For concerts, it’s really hard to tell if ticket prices are going to rise at all in the near future, or if they’ve risen in real terms over the past few years. There’s so much market segmentation (through stubhub resales by the artist, direct sales through fan clubs, late releases, and extra shows) that tickets can look more expensive but be cheaper (or vice versa). Fallout Boy, for instance, is a lot cheaper on average for fans because instead of selling through scalpers for a lot of tickets, they’re releasing themselves through stubhub and their fan club and capturing more of the money for themselves.

      TL, DR: because of marketing, face value tickets are more expensive, but scalpers aren’t getting as much business so overall fans are almost certainly paying less.

    • L2P says:

      For sporting events a lot of it is corporate money. 30 years ago more of the tickets were in private hands. But look at the Lakers today. All of the boxes and most of the premium seats are essentially owned by businesses who don’t care how much they pay. Top 20 law firms, for instance, view tickets to the box for the Lakers as marketing and will pay unreasonable amounts.

      • LeeEsq says:

        I suspect this is one the money. When businesses decided to use tickets to major sporting events as a way to wine and dine clients or as perks for employees; it caused inflation in ticket prices because they can pay more for tickets. Its the same reason why First Class on flights costs so much.

      • Jordan says:

        Yes. The only NFL game I ever went to was because I had a good friend whose company had good season tickets, and their clients fell through for the game so he got them.

        AND THAT GAME WAS AWESOME. But there was no way any of the four of us could have come close to affording season tickets on our own (well, maybe that friend). It was just because my friend’s company owned the season tickets.

    • efgoldman says:

      A lot of it is market-dependent.

      Here’s the Red Sox pricing for a more or less randomly chosen game.
      http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/MLBEventInfo?agency=MLB&pid=7637053&tfl=Boston_Red_Sox-Tickets-Single_Game_Tickets-na-x0

      By contrast, here are Pirates prices, in a new stadium, too.
      http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/MLBEventInfo?agency=MLB&pid=7616916

    • actor212 says:

      Lee, I’m tempted to say that scalpers showed arena owners they could charge pretty much whatever they wanted, and there would still be a demand for tickets. In NY, for instance, they recently repealed the hideous law that forced Ticketmaster et al to charge only a few bucks more than face to broker tickets. The thinking was this would put scalpers out of business because fewer people would try to scramble for seats, and might give people a fair shot at getting decent seats at reasonable prices, since there would be little incentive for scalpers to game the ticketing system (by, for instance, bribing ticket agents, or hiring the homeless to stand in lines at venues). The margins wouldn’t be there.

      All it did was transfer wealth from scalpers to the owners and artists. Prices didn’t come down. Yes, more people had opportunities to buy but they were forced to pay much higher prices for the tickets that were available.

  8. James E Powell says:

    Many people, maybe most, who go to NFL and college football games do not go to watch the game. It is primarily a social event. Some go and TiVo the game for later viewing.

    No matter how good the home viewing gets, it cannot replace the social – we were there – factor.

  9. AcademicLurker says:

    In Baltimore, the Orioles have done sort-of OK by resorting to good food and craft beer to attract people to the stadium. A few hours at Camden Yards is treated as a kind of picnic that happens to have a game going on nearby.

    • efgoldman says:

      They also charge a 30% premium for advance tickets to certain visiting teams – the Red Sox and (maybe not anymore) Yankees.
      I found out the hard way a few years ago when we knew we’d be visiting our kids while the Sox were in town. I bought advance tickets, then looked at the prices for other games.

  10. (Shakezula) says:

    This is … odd. Are you talking about sports in general or football in particular? Or more particularly still, football in places where it gets cold and nasty?

    At any rate, I assume that if enough people consistently decide to stay home and watch on TV (hasn’t happened yet, but let’s pretend) to the point that it impacts the team’s bottom line and the point that the difference can’t be made up in some other way, that ticket prices will drop. But maybe teams will instead go to slapping endorsements on players a la racing. (All plays to be reviewed in slow motion so maximum endorsement viewing.)

  11. Crunchy Frog says:

    Nope. no matter how good watching at home gets they’ll still pack them in the stands. You’re not paying to see the game, you’re paying for the experience.

    Let’s face it, except for getting to see how the play develops in the secondary when you are at the stadium you can see everything better on TV. Plus you get more replays than they show in the stadium, more in-depth explanations, and more info (such as updates on injuries or why a certain player is not on the field).

    Add to that the fact that the large majority of football seats at modern pro football stadia are on the wrong side of the 20 yard line and thus get crappy views of the action except for the few plays in their red zone.

    And then the aggravation of the whole experience. The commute to get to the stadium, often including a walk of a mile or more from the last point of transport. The expenses, the long waits for restrooms even in the most modern stadia, the intensely loud music (mostly rap) that they blare before the game, the crazy prices, and the ridiculous crush to get home. And none of that counts weather.

    And yet, for all that, even at the end of the horrible 2009 season the Broncos tickets were going for $75-a-pop for nosebleed seats and $150 for anything closer to the field near an end zone.

    No, people apparently LIKE that whole experience and will pay for it. My kids begged me to take them so I did – to a low demand game against Cleveland last year in the cold – they thought it was enormous fun.

    People have been predicting that Televised games will keep people from the stadium since before TV was invented (exaggerating only slightly). But remember, the most popular team through the early 1980s in baseball was the Chicago Cubs – the only team in the 1970s to televise every game. Attendance never suffered – in fact what televising the games did was attract more fans. The Cubs didn’t suck every year in the 70s (in fact they held first place in June in most of the odd numbered years) but they weren’t especially good either.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Let’s face it, except for getting to see how the play develops in the secondary when you are at the stadium you can see everything better on TV…Add to that the fact that the large majority of football seats at modern pro football stadia are on the wrong side of the 20 yard line and thus get crappy views of the action except for the few plays in their red zone.

      I can’t disagree more. Sitting in and end zone seats allows you to see the offensive and defensive formation, and pick out the individual players by number, much better than the sideline shots they use on TV.

      • Bob says:

        I’ve been to a few Washington games courtesy a friend with season tickets halfway up the stands around the goal line. On 9 plays out of 10 you watch the play then look to the replay screen to figure out how many yards were gained or lost. From that angle and distance it’s impossible to tell on any but the biggest gains or losses.
        I agree you can readily see the formations and tell who’s who before the ball is snapped, but still, thinking the runner was thrown for a couple yard loss only to find out he gained 5 yards on a regular basis is kind of a crappy way to watch an entire game.

      • NHL94 says:

        Right idea, wrong sport. Some of the best seats at a hockey game are in the first row in the upper tier, behind the goals. Teams now charge a 25-30% premium for these seats but until about 2005 that great seat was the same price as the one 20 rows behind you.

  12. Bill Murray says:

    The experience of watching baseball is much more degraded, aesthetically speaking, by remote viewing than that of watching football

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by aesthetic and what one wants to see, but for me this is not correct. Football of all types just doesn’t give the field coverage necessary for me to know what I want to know about player positioning away from the ball

  13. I would be curious about the trend in the share of gate revenue coming from three sources

    (a) luxury boxes and other high-price, high-service seats
    (b) other season ticket holders
    (c) single-game ticket sales and other small packages (say, anything under 20 games for MLB)

    My suspicion is that the share coming from (b) has shrunk while (a) and (c) have increased. Committed fans no longer go to tons of games; they catch a few in person. But if everyone in a metro area goes to the game exactly once, over half the MLB teams could still theoretically sell out every home game.

    Also, the size of stadiums has stayed mostly constant while interest in sports has increased dramatically. We should not be surprised that gate revenue has increased.

  14. Anderson says:

    I haven’t been to an NFL game since I was a kid, but when the Dolphins were set to come to N.O. this season, I looked into ticket prices. And was stunned. (The Superdome may be an unusually expensive venue, Idk.) Just as well I missed it, in hindsight …

    Shots of the crowd at NFL games now make me see the game as of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Luckily some of us plebs have cable TV.

    • Crunchy Frog says:

      Funnily enough a lot of middle income people choose to spend almost all of their disposable income on going to football games. I don’t know why, but if you go to the game you’ll find that to be true.

  15. Paul Gottlieb says:

    The percentage of NFL fans who want to–and can afford to watch a game live is very small. I don’t see any reason why that small number of fanatics won’t continue to fill stadiums, even as the represent a smaller and smaller percentage of the total audience. In an increasingly unequal society, being able to afford tickets to live sports will become one of the ways that the 1% can demonstrate their superiority, so tickets will be bought.

    Also, when you talk about the declining “cost” of watching pro sports on television, you leave out the terrible cost extracted by the declining number of competent professional broadcasters. You have to include the price of having to listen to John Gruden or Joe Buck in the total cost of watching television.

    • Crunchy Frog says:

      You complain about the announcers like this is some sort of new trend. I assume you are young and don’t remember Howard Cosell, who was inflicted on the American public for over 20 years by ABC. He was so bad that Woody Allen used this as a joke in Sleeper (and the joke got massive applause when Sleeper was shown in theaters), and yet ABC continued to put him on MNF and MNB for another 15 years, plus the playoffs.

  16. NewishLawyer says:

    I am not really a sports guy but what I find interesting is how TV and Netflix has largely hurt movie attendance but not sporting attendance.

    People seem to largely hate going to the movies. I love going to the movies.* The issue with movies seems to be that people only think it is worth going if it is a super big screen and super-special effects movie which are generally not what I like to watch.

    *I admit that I try to avoid the large chains whenever possible and usually head to places like Sundance and Landmark which tend to charge a bit more but you get less annoying ads and way fewer previews. There are also the independent art houses like Film Forum, Village QUAD, etc. Plus a lot of new chains seem to be going for 21 and over crowds.

    • efgoldman says:

      I am not really a sports guy but what I find interesting is how TV and Netflix has largely hurt movie attendance but not sporting attendance.

      Not a valid comparison. A sporting event occurs in real time, every event is different from every other, and the “ending” is not fixed or known. Each game has a different consequence.
      A movie (like a book, a play, a poem, a painting, a symphony(*)…) is created and immutable. There may be drama, surprises, laughs, things that frighten us, but they are what they are and where they are. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca or read War & Peace, it doesn’t change.

      (*) yes, I know about improvisation and aleatoric music, etc. Doesn’t really change the point.

    • ajp says:

      I’ve very recently come around on movies. The AMC on 84th and Broadway (manhattan) just put in these awesome Laz-e-boy esque seats that recline fully. Tons of space. Awesome. You’re still paying 15 bucks, but it actually feels worth it

      • efgoldman says:

        Our local mallplex got a major makeover a few years ago. Not La-Z-Boys or anything, and no in-theater service, but the auditoriums and seats are comfortable, the sightlines ar good, the sound systems (important to me) are Dolby or better, the projection is all DLP, and we go to matinees for seven bucks. (We rarely do concessions.)

      • NewishLawyer says:

        I know of that theatre. Friends have talked about it.

        I don’t mind normal seats. I mind the endless ads and previews. Sundance cuts down on the ads and previews.

  17. actor212 says:

    people have been predicting that broadcasting sports events would kill the live gate ever since the invention of television, and pretty much precisely the opposite has happened: as more sports have become available on TV (and now through other technologies as well), the live gate for major sports events, in America at least, has continued to grow.

    Interesting and undeniable point, Paul, but is that a factor of interest in sports themselves or the marketing of sports because the TV contracts have become so bloated?

    Let me start by saying I’ve given zero thought to this argument, so I’m fleshing out and will continue to flesh out after I post this, but my instinct sort of suggests to me that with the money teams are making from TV contracts that have expanded the remote access audiences, they’ve been almost forced to put more into marketing the teams locally to make attendance at games look better, to make the product more desirable.

    Prima facie evidence? The fact that the National League in baseball went from actual turnstyle customers to the American League model of tickets sold. We can assume that decision was not a lark.

    • actor212 says:

      Thinking more on this, I suspect the sport most susceptible to the vagaries of live attendance, at least in the States, will be the NHL as it is by far the least popular of the four major sports leagues. It will be interesting to compare attendance figures for the past decade and then going forward.

      Already I can see where the Blackhawks drew 300,000 fewer people last season than the season before and they LED the NHL in live attendance.

    • LeeEsq says:

      If sports teams need to fill stadium seats in order to make their teams look better on TV, wouldn’t a better strategy be to charge bellow market prices for tickets so more people can afford to see them?

      • actor212 says:

        Or lower the number of seats, which is what seems to have taken place. For instance, Shea held 56,000 or so, Citifield is in the 40,000 range.

        Where Shea regularly featured entire levels of empty seats, Citifield has minimized that, plus ushers are encouraged in really miserably attended games to fill in the field levels.

        • efgoldman says:

          I think that’s driven by the demise of those horrid “all-purpose” bowls (Shea, Cincy, Pittsburgh, Philly, Atlanta, etc.) used for baseball and football, in favor of single-sport stadiums. Baseball parks have always been smaller than football stadiums.

          • actor212 says:

            But is that driven by the needs of the fans of the team, or the enormous sums of money the leagues can throw around from the TV contracts?

            After all, if you don’t sink it into the ground, you have to pay Uncle Sam.

            • efgoldman says:

              But is that driven by the needs of the fans of the team, or the enormous sums of money the leagues can throw around from the TV contracts?

              Its driven by the difference in the sports, and by the number of event dates. Except for certain very specific localities and circumstances, any 65,000 seat baseball park would routinely have tens of thousands of empty seats.

            • Jay C says:

              What efg (and a host of other rather intelligent LGM commentors) noted above: baseball has a different set of attendance paradigms: 3 million in fan attendance per year (which is still quite a respectable butt-in-seat turnout) is – over 81 games – an average gate of about 37,000: with the unique exception of Fenway Park, that’s well below capacity for every MLB stadium in the country.

      • efgoldman says:

        If sports teams need to fill stadium seats in order to make their teams look better on TV, wouldn’t a better strategy be to charge bellow market prices for tickets so more people can afford to see them?

        A very early Boston sports yapper (late 1960s – early 70s) predicted that stadiums would effectively become TV studios. That was before cable networks (both team-owned and ESPN), before hi-def jumbotrons, before mini-computer/TVs disguised as telephones, before personal seat licenses, and free agency, and the salary cap…
        In the long run, he was mostly right.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      That seems a bit too conspiracy minded. I think people really like going to live sports events.

      We live in a nation of 300 million people. Most sports teams are located in large metropolitan areas. This means that you can still fill stadiums even most people choose to watch at home. You can even have people like me who don’t watch sports and still makes lots of money on the stuff.

  18. Western Dave says:

    @skeeball I’m surprised you paid that much for Mets tickets. Don’t they have stubhub up there? I’ve gotten Phillies tickets the last two years for as little as 2 bucks a seat. Would have been cheaper but its hard to find 5-6 tickets. Pairs were going for as little as a penny for a Sunday day game in August. I can’t believe Mets tickets were more. There wasn’t anybody at those games.

    • actor212 says:

      Minimum price for a Mets ticket is (or was in 2012) around $20. Stub Hub has some premium seats in that range, but it’s rare to find a seat for less than $50 anywhere near field level. I’ve never searched day of game for tickets, but I’ve sold tickets and never gotten less than $14 the day before a miserable late season game in rotten weather.

  19. Thlayli says:

    The Knicks have a home game tomorrow (Friday the 27th). The game is on local cable. In addition, the Knicks are having a terrible season; the visiting team is Toronto, who aren’t doing much better.

    The cheapest ticket available on Stubhub is $140.

  20. [...] is leaving money on the table.  At least that’s the case in the short run.  But what about the longer term picture? Here are two assertions that don’t seem [...]

  21. toberdog says:

    I’m reminded of the Star Trek OS episode about the planet that was like Earth in the 1960s except the whole planet was the Roman Empire. They had televised gladiator battles instead of football. But no one attended live – it was a fake coliseum and all the crowd noise was piped in.

  22. Tom Servo says:

    I enjoy going to baseball, hockey, and basketball games. I will only watch football in bars.

  23. Murc says:

    Question: do we know if growth in number of seats is keeping pace with population growth?

    Because that would seem to be an important contributing factor. Stadiums are only so big. Are there more of them than there were in decades past, and do they have more seats? The new Yankee Stadium has fewer seats than the old one, for example, and there are a shit-ton more people living in that market than previously did. Here in Rochester, which has had a robust minor league baseball and hockey market for the last eighty years, Silver Stadium lost seats over the course of its life, and the new stadium, Frontier Field, has fewer seats than Silver did even at its low point. Every time they remodel the War Memorial (our hockey venue) that loses seats as well.

    Silver Stadium opened in 1929 with 13,000 seats in it. In 2013 Fronter Field has 10.5k seats in it. There are substantially more people living here now than in 1929.

    You can dramatically shrink the portion of the population that is both willing and able to go see a live sporting event and still sell out every single event as long as the population itself is growing like gangbusters and number of seats remains steady or goes into decline.

    • actor212 says:

      The new Yankee Stadium has fewer seats than the old one, for example, and there are a shit-ton more people living in that market than previously did.

      The New York metropolitan area, basically the Tri-State region, had 23 million in the 2010 census. The 1990 census showed 20 million. 15% over 20 years is not exactly a shit-ton more people, at a growth rate of less than 1% a year.

      • Murc says:

        Yankee Stadium had 70k seats in 1942. It only declined from there. The tri-state area had substantially less people then than it did in both 1990 (capacity of Yankee Stadium: 57k) and in 2010 (capacity of Yankee Stadium: 50k.) 15% growth is actually quite a large population increase, especially combined with a… ten percent? I think, give or take? reduction in the amount of available seats at the same time.

        I don’t think you’ve significantly undercut my point, which is that in many markets, the ratio of stadium seats to population has dramatically decreased compared to what it once was, and that is probably a factor when it comes to stadiums remaining full despite skyrocketing ticket prices and the ease and convenience of watching at home.

        • efgoldman says:

          Yankee Stadium had 70k seats in 1942.

          It was also used for football and boxing into the 1950s.

        • actor212 says:

          I’m not convinced that there’s much of a correlation between population growth (or stadium seating) and attendance at games.

          For instance, despite losing some 20,000 seats in the new stadium, stadium attendance on average has declined only a few thousand per game (as you can see). So the bigger stadium just meant more empty seats. Some of that decline can be attributed to a shittier team, and some to higher ticket prices, to be sure — altho StubHub kind of deflates that last point signiificantly.

          But none of it can be directly ascribed to fewer seats.

  24. Bargal20 says:

    Don’t British women watch football? There wasn’t a single woman depicted on the football cards in that video.

  25. njorl says:

    The experience of watching baseball is much more degraded, aesthetically speaking, by remote viewing than that of watching football

    I disagree. On TV, either in real time or on replay, you see all of the action in a baseball game. By watching on TV, you also get to see the pitcher work the strike zone. About the only thing you miss is the excitement of the fielders repositioning themselves for batter and circumstances.

    In football, you rarely see the pass routs or how the dbacks are covering until the pass goes downfield. Once in a while, they’ll show a replay of how a guy got open, or how the dbacks were covering, but not usually. Even if they do show a reply, they don’t show how the routs interact, they just show a tight shot of the receiver. The first time I went to a game, it was like I had never seen football before.

    You couldn’t be more right about hockey, though. At least now you can see the puck on TV.

    • actor212 says:

      As a former player, I much prefer watching live, but then I get the nuances of strategy and communication, and I love “playing along” by stealing signs.

      But it is literally “inside baseball” stuff, and not something the normal fan digs.

      However, there is nothing like the taste of a cold beer at a ballpark.

      • And nothing like a beer topped with a healthy dollop of ketchup.

        • the ghost of C. L. Dodgson says:

          “There’s nothing like eating hay when you’re faint,” he remarked to her, as he munched away.

          “I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,” Alice suggested: “or some sal-volatile.”

          “I didn’t say there was nothing BETTER,” the King replied. “I said there was nothing LIKE it.” Which Alice did not venture to deny.

  26. Sam240 says:

    Neil DeMause had an article in Baseball by the Numbers which pointed out that the inflation in MLB’s ticket prices didn’t start until 1990. During the 1970s and 1980s, while inflation-adjusted player salaries skyrocketed, there was little change in inflation-adjusted ticket prices.

    His hypothesis was that the Skydome changed marketing. Before it opened, the strategy was to sell as many seats as possible. The Skydome, with a more mall-like atmosphere, an attached hotel, and a plethora of luxury boxes, introduced a strategy of catering to wealthier people.

    Note that, while income for most people has stagnated for decades, the top 10% has made more, and the top 1% has been making out by bandits. If those are the people you’re going after, it makes sense that ticket prices are rising. The sports marketers aren’t just selling games; you aren’t going to get stadium stores or restaurant service at home.

    While demand is going up, supply hasn’t changed very much, if at all. Baseball’s last expansion came last century, and the third-oldest stadium in the National League is Coors Field . The NFL hasn’t expanded in the past decade, so the number of games has remained stable at 256 per season overall. With just 256 games, it shouldn’t be hard, in a nation of 300 million, to find enough people with more money than sense to buy all those NFL tickets.

  27. e.a.f. says:

    it isn’t about the game, its about the atmosphere, the temporary sense of “belonging”. Its an opportunity to be released from reality. People will continue to pay outrageous amounts of money to watch “live sports”. There will always be enough 1%ers and 2%ers who have enough money to attend.

  28. TMC says:

    Another data point: this year, virtually all the college bowl games have had low ticket sales.

  29. Ed says:

    Television exposure has generally helped sports overall, not hurt them, and I expect that will continue to be the case for the immediate future. The lords of horse racing have made many errors in judgment over the decades, but one of them long ago was their general disdain for television. They were never able to make up for lost time.

  30. CGB says:

    I disagree with several premises of this post. It is an interesting concept and I suppose the same could be argued about other areas where technology has cannabalized the former experience. However, these are the few problems I see with the premise:

    1. Believing technology will cannabalize the live experience, but hasn’t already, requires there to be some technology that is going to be introduced that doesn’t exist today or a current one to expand in ownership enough to incent a different consumer behavior. I don’t personally believe having HD so you can see the wrinkle in the uniform as they cross into the endzone is that technology. HD is getting more popular and cheaper, but has’t changed the current consumer patterns, as noted, so I think it a stretch to assume it ultimately will.

    2. The mutual increase in both live and remote viewership of football is most likely due to increasing total interest in the sport and therefore is a product of an expanding market. Competition for market share is likely to happen only if the pie stops growing while the supply of games for remote or live viewing doesn’t. The other main reason I could think of for saturation of live viewing would be demographics, but as the baby boomers retire I think that would only free up more time for them (presumably a large live experience base) to see more live games.

    3. The suggestion that pro sports game timing is at the mercy of the broadcasters is not a likely scenario for the US. It may be different in Europe if the BBC has enough clout, but in general the content providers carry all the clout and leverage since their is so much competition in the broadcast and transmission space. Since the NFL is a content provider and a network it won’t be at the mercy of a Viacom or NBC etc. Even if it didn’t have it’s own NFL network there would still be too much competition amongst broadcasters for them to risk pushing back on timing of NFL events. Just look at Disney’s latest earnings release and where they made money and where they lost money. They make money on their own big picture movies and lose money on their broadcasting of purchased content for their network.

    4. I work at a major satelite company and despite all the technology we have released to make the remote viewing experience more intriguing I still hear how much more admiration is recieved from saying ‘I went to the game last night’ than saying ‘I watched he game last night’.

    5. I think you could propose the same theory about real vs. fake christmas trees. As fake christmas trees have gotten so much closer to the real thing and cheaper we would have anticipated real tree purchases to tank given that the consumer doesn’t have to spend the time and effort every year to pick it out, drive it home, set it up, maintain it, take it down, cut it up, and dispose of it. However, I think the data would show that the increase in fake tree purchases probably hasn’t impacted total real tree purchases significantly.

    It will be an interesting thing to watch for sure.

  31. [...] Atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy I fell off the left-right continuum today When will technology undercut sports attendance? Amid mass school closings, a slow death for some Chicago schools Celsus, Origen, and David Brooks [...]

  32. [...] Of Peanuts And Cracker Jack Posted at 5:01 on January 3, 2014 by Andrew Sullivan Eric Loomis wonders if sports fans will ever stop shelling out for stadium tickets: Here are two assertions that don’t [...]

  33. MNP says:

    Wife and I got baseball tickets. $7 a piece. We parked (free) and rode the train to the stadium ($6 for both of us). So there you go.

  34. Area Man says:

    It’s simple supply and demand. While the TV audience can be expanded indefinitely, roughly the same number of tickets to any given live event are available today as were available 30 or 40 years ago. (Today’s Yankee Stadium holds fewer people than the one built in 1923.) Yet the population is 50% higher than it was in the 1970s. Fifty percent more people and the same number of seats means that the prices get bid up. This has caused, and I think will continue to cause, live sporting events to become luxury goods. At some point the middle class may be priced out entirely.

    If sports leagues care to reverse this trend, they need to expand at a much faster pace. MLB has added only 2 teams since the 70s, and the NFL has added 4. These are 7% and 14% increases, respectively, which is a far slower rate than population growth. I suspect that the leagues don’t care if they expand too slowly, as restricting supply is beneficial to incumbent owners and players.

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