Best seat in the house

When Andrew Ford was 18, he put himself on the Washington Redskins' season-ticket waiting list. As someone who had cheered for the team as a child, he had dreamed of the day that he'd have the opportunity to buy season tickets.

Yet when Ford's name rose to the top of the waiting list 13 years later, something had changed.

"It wasn't the feeling of elation I had always imagined it would come with," Ford said. "It was more of 'Your number is coming up in the Army' than 'Your number is coming up in the lotto.'"

Ford's sentiment had little to do with his favorite team winning only four playoff games the entire time his name moved up the waiting list. It was more about competing interests on Sundays.

For Ford and an untold number of fans, the experience of watching NFL games on TV just might be better than going to games at a stadium. Better because of camera angles and close-ups. Better because of cost. Better because of advances like the DirecTV Sunday Ticket and Red Zone channels. Better because of injury reports from announcers. And better for fantasy football playing.

"It's kind of a feeling of information completeness," Ford said of watching games at home. "You know there's nothing missing. So when somebody goes down on one of my fantasy teams, in the next 10 seconds I can have his backup picked."

The National Football League might qualify as the strongest sports league in the world, with attendance that leaves only 3 percent of stadiums empty over the course of a season. After four straight years of small attendance declines, following an all-time high in 2007, this year's average attendance is up about 500 fans per game.

But the Andrew Fords of the world have caught league officials' attention.

In 1998, an ESPN sports poll revealed that 54 percent of fans would rather be at a game than watch it at home. When that poll was taken again last year, only 29 percent of fans wanted to be at the game, a precipitous drop.

The TV-watching numbers are turning out as robust as projected -- the past three seasons have been the most watched in the NFL's history. Through Week 10 this year, NFL games have been the 16 most-watched shows on TV this fall, and the league's games have been the most-watched show in the local markets a record 91 percent of the time. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is the most-watched prime-time show on television, and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is the most-watched show on cable.

So how did this come to be?

More NFL fans overall, sure. But it also starts with the fact that television is what is most important to the league, at least as far as revenue is concerned. Taking into account the $102.5 million each team received from its national TV deal last year, the presentation of games on television more than doubles the revenue of ticket sales.

Current television contracts with the likes of CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV add up to $3 billion a year, and when the networks are paying that kind of money, they're going to make the presentation as good as it can be. There's the yellow line, high definition and better technology all the time that is getting cheaper to purchase.

"When TV is a phenomenal prospect, you're going to have people pay lots of money for it," said Eric Grubman, the executive vice president of NFL ventures and business operations. "And when people pay lots of money for it, they're going to work really hard at making it great."

Barry Frank, executive vice president of IMG Media, who might have negotiated more sports television deals than anyone in broadcast history, said the game is tailor-made for TV.

"If a group of intelligent, knowledgeable sports fans sat down with an empty table and said, 'Let's create a sport for television, the best sport there could ever be,' we would create football," he said. "Football is a perfect television sport. It gives you time between plays to replay, it gives you commentary, it allows close-ups."

Frank was a longtime season-ticket holder for the New York Giants, from 1961 until two years ago, when he gave up his seats.

He now not only watches the Giants, he watches the other games being played, thanks to DirecTV's Sunday Ticket. For other fans, the destination is the Red Zone channels, which show every scoring opportunity from every game, every week.

Trying to replicate this home experience at stadiums is nearly impossible, though the league is trying various innovations. Officials acknowledge the perception that fans want to stay at home but insist there is no major worry.

"There's no crisis," Grubman said. "We're selling in the high 90 percent, 95, 97, 98 percent of tickets, and frankly, people are clamoring for tickets in a lot of markets. The fan in the stadium deserves the best possible experience."

One of the first things teams have jumped at to improve the in-game experience is connecting their stadiums with Wi-Fi, an expensive undertaking. Connecting a stadium so that at least 40 percent of fans can be on a network at the same time costs up to $10 million. The league says it is monitoring at least six stadiums that have installed Wi-Fi to see what works best: MetLife Stadium (Jets/Giants), the Georgia Dome (Falcons), Lucas Oil Stadium (Colts) and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Saints), among them.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who owns FanVision, a device that allows fans to watch games inside the stadium, said he's aiming to have the most high-density Wi-Fi system in the league by season's end. Ross might be the most attendance-challenged owner in the league. His team this season is averaging 56,973 fans per game, down more than 10,000 fans per game than what the team was drawing just two seasons ago.

"I think the biggest challenge an owner of any sports team in any league has today is knowing that the fan experience at home, watching it on TV, is probably a better experience today than it is going there live," Ross acknowledges.

Eyes also are on what 31-year-old Jed York is planning for the 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., which will open in 2014. York has turned heads by hiring executives outside of sports, including three top officials from Facebook.

"There's a full tech structure that needs to be built in order to give our fans the best in-stadium experience," York said. "In this specific case, it's not as much about generating revenue as much as it is making sure we get this right. We don't want to hardware a stadium for Wi-Fi and then have it become obsolete in three to five years. We want to have a software-driven stadium so that we can change with the times. We're in an area where our fans spend $1,000 every 19 months to upgrade their hardware [phones], so that's why we need to make sure we have the brightest folks in the world working for and with us."

York and his staff have considered everything from making the building a ticketless, cashless facility, to how to make parking more efficient depending on where people sit, to how to maximize the stadium crowd to provide a greater home-field advantage. He also has plans for a fantasy football lounge, where fans who love the 49ers can get in early or during the game and watch the games their fantasy players are playing in.

Brendan Murphy, a longtime New York Jets fan who recently gave up his season tickets, is thrilled with where he plans on watching the 49ers play the Jets: a bar in New York City. It's not the traffic, the drive or even the prices that led the 31-year-old Murphy to give up his season tickets in the upper deck at MetLife Stadium; it was mostly the view.

"You're lost out there," Murphy said. "You're lost. You're not tuned in. Who has the best seat in the house at that point? Me at the game? Or the guy watching the TV screen? We're there and they have screens, [stadium officials] have the JumboTrons and they don't replay anything.

"They don't tell you anything. They don't keep you in the loop. Now you're sitting there, and you're lost and you're like, 'How is this possible?' I'm at the event, and I have to text a friend or wait for a phone call at halftime from someone to tell me what happened, and I'm there live."

The NFL's Grubman said he's confident that the league can bring what's great about the home experience to the stadium and convince those who have left to come back.

"I'm convinced that if I have inventory to sell in the stadium, that one piece of inventory was a corner standing area that on three sides is surrounded by screens," Grubman said. "The fourth side is open to the field and on those screens was every piece of content somebody might choose to watch at home. I guarantee you I can sell that as premium inventory."

Fans at games haven't seemed overly impressed with one innovation from the league this year: Getting the same look the referee gets when he goes under the hood for a replay.

But Grubman said the live experience will only get better. He said the league has broached the idea of putting microphones on players and having in-game sounds be an option for someone to follow along. It would be available only on the smartphones of those inside the stadium.

Murphy, though, loves the bar-watching experience. The bartender is ready for his drink order. His friends' yelling and screaming replaces the stadium atmosphere. He doesn't have to get up for food, and there's no line at the bathroom.

When Murphy gave up his season tickets after eight years, he said no one from the Jets ever called him to ask him why. Maybe the Jets had it too good at the time; the new stadium was fresh, and a terrible season like this one could not be fathomed.

But Murphy knows there is a lot more to lose than fans at games if things don't change.

"They need to join at some point and cater to our generation," Murphy said. "My generation, that's young, that needs this information at the game. Or they're gonna lose us. Economics. Economics 101. If you don't like something, walk away."