Professional football, America‘s most popular and profitable sport, is preparing to tackle a glaring weakness: Stadiums are increasingly empty.
As part of sweeping changes designed to give teams more flexibility to fill seats, the National Football League is watering down its controversial TV “blackout” rule, which restricts local broadcasts for games that aren’t sellouts. And this season, for the first time, fans in the stadium will be able to watch the same instant replays the referees see during reviews of controversial calls.
The league also is planning to introduce wireless Internet in every stadium and to create smartphone apps that could let fans listen to players wearing microphones on the field.
With declines in ticket sales each of the past five years, average game attendance is down 4.5 percent since 2007, while broadcast and online viewership is soaring. The NFL is worried that its couch-potato options — both on television and on mobile devices — have become good enough that many fans don’t see the point of attending an actual game.
“The at-home experience has gotten better and cheaper, while the in-stadium experience feels like it hasn’t,” said Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of ventures and business operations. “That’s a trend that we’ve got to do something about.”
In hopes that professional football can mimic the wild stadium atmosphere typical of college football games, the NFL says it has “liberalized” its restraints on crowd noise. Stadiums will now be free to rile up crowds with video displays, and public-address announcers will no longer be restrained from inciting racket when the opposing offense faces a crucial third down.
The league’s decades-old strategy for encouraging people to attend games, the blackout rule, has become counterproductive in some respects. Blackouts were meant to encourage ticket sales, but the strict guidelines are looking outdated.
Some teams want freedom to add stadium capacity without risking blackouts. And blackouts are rare anyway, occurring in only 16 of last season’s 256 regular-season games, partly because some team owners and sponsors buy up unsold seats to get blackouts lifted.
Team owners have passed a resolution that starting this season will allow for local broadcasts of NFL games even when as few as 85 percent of tickets are sold. Under the new rule, each team has more flexibility to establish its own seat-sales benchmark as long as it is 85 percent or higher. To discourage teams from setting easy benchmarks, teams will be forced to share more of the revenue when they exceed it.
Because of slumping stadium attendance, long-standing season-ticket waiting lists have disappeared in several cities. Full-season tickets are readily available on the websites of 20 of the league’s 32 teams.
The Indianapolis Colts, who in 2010 had a 16,000-seat waiting list for season tickets, now have 1,900 season tickets available for their first season without star quarterback Peyton Manning. The New York Jets, even though they now feature quarterback Tim Tebow, announced last week they are cutting prices on 12,000 seats.
Ticket prices have climbed in recent years, from an average $72.20 in 2008 to $77.34 last year, according to Team Marketing Report. Along with the ticket, the average NFL beer is now $7.20, a hot dog is $4.77, and parking costs $25.77.
Although the NFL blames the economy, it also worries that the trend reflects a downside to its broadcasting success. TV ratings for NFL games are so strong that broadcasters have guaranteed the league $27.9 billion from 2014 through 2022. That is by far the world’s richest sports-broadcasting contract.
Earlier in the NFL’s existence, stadium crowds mattered tremendously. Even though crowds were relatively small — the league never averaged 50,000 fans until 1966 — ticket sales accounted for a large percentage of revenue.
Then billions of dollars from media deals emerged as the NFL became a television darling. Now, broadcast contracts are “the lifeblood” of team finances, accounting for about half of income, said Andrew Brandt, a former Packers vice president who is an ESPN NFL business analyst.
Other sports have mixed results on attendance. In college basketball, attendance is down each of the past five years. “Across all sports, leagues and teams need to do a much better job of entertaining people who go to the game,” said Scott Rosner, a sports-business professor at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
Baseball was a bright spot, with attendance up 0.5 percent last year, according to Major League Baseball. A National Basketball Association spokesman said the league was “about even” last year.
In the NFL, negotiations are under way for leaguewide wireless Internet inside stadiums. At least four teams are likely to have wireless Internet in their stadiums this year.
The idea is that bolstering cell reception and adding wireless will enable fans to re-create the living room in their stadium seats. Fans can receive highlights and replays of the game on the field, or other games across the country. Pete Ward, chief operating officer of the Colts, said this year that the team will unleash a new app for on-demand highlights for fans at the game.
“Your smartphone is your replay screen in our stadium,” Mr. Ward said.
The Wi-Fi will be free, the league said. Other services might cost extra.
Owners have granted permission for the league to place microphones on certain players so that fans can hear on-field commentary via an in-the-work app that would distribute raw feeds. That is a privilege previously awarded only to networks holding broadcast rights.
The NFL has already mandated that teams have in their stadiums a channel called NFL Red Zone, which shows all plays from around the league within the 20-yard line. That feature can also be used on some smartphones.
Under consideration is a plan to make fans in the seats privy to the conversations among referees during reviews of disputed calls. It is a “long way off,” said Mr. Grubman, but it represents a desire to welcome in-stadium fans into long-secret huddles on the sideline and in the locker room in the name of helping attendance. “You have to be able to make the game open, you have to give explanations, you have to give information,” Mr. Grubman said.