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NFL

NFL teams competing with TV for fans' attention

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
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Gavin Rapp has two of his family's six Steelers season tickets that go back to the 1970s. But for the past few years, Rapp has been selling the pair, choosing to watch games on TV with his friends (and, it should be noted, making a tidy profit).

“Going to the games has changed,” said Rapp, 45, an independent filmmaker who lives in Aspinwall. “Especially the etiquette and the way the stadium is nowadays. I don't think people should walk in front of you when the play is going on. Don't yell over my shoulder at the players. It's gotten really annoying to go. To me, it's not as attractive as it used to be.”

Rapp, of course, does not speak for all Steelers fans or likely even most of them. Game day at Heinz Field, launched by tailgate parties that start long before kickoff, remains a widely anticipated event. The season-ticket waiting list is backed up for years, and someone always is eager to fill Rapp's seat.

But in a broader context, he is not alone. League-wide, the so-called fan experience has been found wanting, especially compared to the comforts of the couch and sports bar.

Since peaking in 2007, NFL attendance declined for four straight seasons before rebounding last season. In 2011, the league drew its fewest fans since 2002, when it expanded to 32 teams with the addition of Houston. The average paid crowd was the lowest since 1998.

Despite attendance increasing last season, the NFL and its teams are continuing their campaign to attract fans to games. The Cleveland Browns' new management recently went so far as to create the position of vice president of fan experience and marketing.

“Think how savvy consumers are,” Browns president Alec Scheiner said. “There are so many different options on how to spend money. Think of how people go to restaurants compared to 20 years ago, the expectations of quality and service. It's just different. It used to be sports teams could sit back and answer the phone and expect fans to come to the games. I don't think you can do that anymore.”

Not with all those options, compounded by escalating ticket and concession prices, the potential for inclement weather, sometimes rude (and often drunk) fans, traffic and parking hassles and, in some cities, simply lackluster teams.

Today, TVs are better, cheaper and connected to more games. A 65-inch, LCD flat-screen TV that cost $8,000 in 2007 now goes for about $1,500. On it, inside your climate-controlled living room or man cave, you can watch your favorite team and others, plus NFL Network's Red Zone (“Every touchdown from every game”). On DirectTV, all games are available, even eight at once.

Meanwhile, the nachos and beer sit within easy reach of a cushy recliner, sofa or helmet chair, and cost much less than at the stadium. Driving time, zero, Parking, zero. Home bathroom advantage, priceless.

In 1998, 54 percent of fans said they would rather watch a game in person than on TV, according to an ESPN poll. In 2011, that number dropped to 29 percent. While the economic implications are modest, the league has taken note.

“The NFL continues to grapple with the fact that, for many fans, watching games on TV, at home, for free, is a better experience than spending a small fortune to go to the game,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last year.

Small fortune, indeed. The average ticket price last year was $78.38, according to Team Marketing Report, in addition to parking, food, beverages and other items. Personal-seat licenses add to the cost. Then there are the physical discomforts: sub-freezing temperatures and etiquette-breaching fans.

“I think what you've got is the confluence between these great ways people can be entertained at home and the hassle of going to the game,” said Jed Hughes, a former Steelers assistant coach who heads the sports division of Korn/Ferry, a Los Angeles-based executive search firm.

Some franchises, such as Miami, Jacksonville and San Diego (Sun Belt teams competing with GOOD weather) feel the financial pinch more than others. But the loss of revenue caused by fans staying home is generally not the pressing concern. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar conglomerate fueled by TV money expected to hit about $6 billion a year starting next season (TV giveth, but it also taketh away). Beyond the dollars, however, the league fiercely protects its brand and image. Empty seats and blacked-out games is bad advertising.

“To have a great product, you want to be sold out, you want a waiting list, you want to make sure people are coming to the games,” Hughes said.

“I think we all realize it's easier to be at home,” Scheiner said. “But there are some things you can't do at home, and maybe we need to do a better job of explaining. Thinking back to your life as a fan, the moments are when you were there.”

Aside from trying to build a winner (the best remedy for empty seats), teams have been making changes. The Browns this season are addressing, among varied complaints, cell phone service, long lines at concession stands and at the stadium entrances, and the music played inside.

“Everything from the time they're home to their time in the stadium,” Scheiner said.

“Everything” means wiener dog races, too.

Responding to the proliferation of hand-held devices, teams are taking a higher-tech approach. Goodell last year said that “we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure we create the same type of environment in our stadiums and create the same kind of technology.”

That means high-speed WiFi, better sound systems and bigger video boards. This season, locker room cameras will display in every stadium some of what goes on behind the scenes before a game. Jacksonville, which last year introduced the “lap pass” (free admission for kids shorter than 34 inches if they sit on a lap), plans to show Red Zone inside the stadium.

Steelers marketing director Tony Quatrini was not available for comment. Team spokesman Burt Lauten said some of the changes at Heinz Field for this season include enhanced wireless, jazzier pregame player introductions and allowing credit cards at all points of sale.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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