I'm not buying the narrative. You know, the one that suggests that the NFL's primary obstacle for drawing fans to games is the enhanced experience of viewing games at home via HD televisions and Internet access.
I don't doubt the advantages of home viewing. But after documenting anecdotal evidence of half-full stadiums during the second half of the season and noting the struggles of three teams to sell out this weekend's wild-card playoff games, I suggest there is more in play than simply viewing preferences.
To address this issue, the NFL is focused on offering exclusive stadium experiences to draw home viewers. It should also understand, however, that ticket prices, outdoor weather, harsh ticket policies and, yes, drunken fans are also contributing factors -- at least according to those who spoke up during an impromptu Twitter chat Wednesday. The tweets at the bottom of this post provide some highlights.
I'm not sure whether there is one theme coursing through the problems experienced this week by the Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts -- who were a combined 21,000 tickets short of sellouts as of early Thursday morning -- but it's worth remembering the financial burden and requirements the NFL makes when planning for home playoff games.
Most teams send season-ticket holders invoices for the playoffs in late November or early December, sometimes before they have clinched a postseason spot. Typically, they require purchase of two rounds of games. In the Packers' case, invoices arrived in the middle of a 2-5-1 stretch that made the postseason seem highly unlikely. In most instances, payment is required up front, and if the team doesn't get a home playoff game, those funds are credited toward the following year's season tickets.
Generally, if a fan wants to cancel a team's season tickets, a refund can be arranged -- via written request -- to be processed at some point after Jan. 31, according to the policies I've seen. At the very least, however, teams hold the money for about three months -- interest-free, of course -- and up to six based on when season-ticket payments would otherwise be due.
You might think NFL season-ticket holders can afford to float that type of money, given what they already spend on an annual basis, but the numbers show that many of them hesitated.
We saw similarly aggressive ticket policies during the 2011 lockout, and I submit that there are other ways to treat your best customers. The Seattle Seahawks offer an example.
The Seahawks were perhaps the biggest lock for a playoff spot in the NFL after an 11-1 start, but their policy -- known as "pay as we play" -- required payment information this fall but did not debit accounts until the actual games were clinched. The Seahawks' divisional-round playoff game next weekend is already sold out.
Finances are a big part of the equation, I was reminded in our conversation, but many fans have an expanded view of their game-day experience. As @BurlRolett tweeted: "Deterioration of in-stadium experience is as much a part of it as improvements in the home viewing experience."
In Green Bay, a frigid weather forecast (the latest for Sunday is a high of 0 degrees and a low of minus-18) has kept some fans from buying tickets. But in Cincinnati, the high is forecast to be 35, and the Colts, of course, play in a dome.
A bigger issue, and one I wrote about this past spring, is the presence of drunken and/or aggressive fans. Tweeted @timwegener: "I'm a club tix holder & going with my son. Too many drunks, crude t-shirts making me wonder if I want to renew."
As anyone who has sat near one can tell you, a few drunks can exponentially impact the experience of those around them. And real or exaggerated, reports of fights in stadium parking lots -- among them a stabbing in Denver and a scuffle that ended in a death in Kansas City -- has seared an impression for some.
This is all anecdotal, of course, but these sentiments are real and from actual fans who have attended recent NFL games. Again, I don't doubt that many are influenced simply by how great football looks on an HD television in the living room. Just the same, however, it's important to realize that other important factors -- all of them addressable, if the NFL chooses -- are at play as well.