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When will technology undercut sports attendance?

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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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