LEAVE IT TO THE NFL to operate ahead of the curve. Recognizing that attendance is slipping while no-shows are rising, the NFL is taking bold steps to get fans off their couches at home and into stadium seats.
The Carolina Panthers, with a recently released $300 million master plan of renovations to Bank of America Stadium, are joining the charge to make attending pro football games a more fan-friendly experience.
How the Panthers secure that hefty sum of money remains in the political lobbying stage with state and Charlotte officials. But there is no doubt about where a significant chunk of the dough will go, according to Panthers president Danny Morrison, who spoke Wednesday at USC.
Nearly two years ago, when Morrison began formulating the renovation plans, team president Jerry Richardson made it clear what the emphasis should be.
He told us ... the master plan has to impact all fans, not just concentrate on the premium areas, Morrison says. His point to us ... was that we need to make sure the majority of things impact all 70,000 fans, not just the premium areas.
While much money is earmarked for facility infrastructure and an indoor practice facility, $59 million would go toward video boards and sound at the stadium, another $28 million toward escalators and elevators to upper-level seats, and $25 million toward technology.
Everybody that is in the sports business, the administrative business, everybody is working on improving the fan experience, Morrison says. I think we all recognize that thats not only a responsibility, but that it should be a high priority for us.
Long gone are the days when fan loyalty alone brought fans to the ballpark or stadium. Long gone are the days when an NFL team or college football program simply opened its doors and watched fans open their wallets and take their seats. Long gone are the days of family affordable sports. The average cost for a family of four to attend an NFL game was more than $400 in 2010.
The NFL has experienced a 4.5 percent decline in attendance since 2007, according to profootballtalk.com. Even though the Panthers have sold out 103 consecutive games home games at their 74,000-seat stadium in Charlotte, most games are played in front of thousands of empty seats or no-shows.
It does not take an MBA or any sports administration expertise to see what is happening in pro and college football. Fans are figuring out that the experience is much more enjoyable and much less expensive while watching the game on a high definition TV at home or at a sports bar.
Morrison says he recognizes that football is a made-for-TV sport, and the consistent high ratings of NFL games verify that. Yet Morrison says attending an NFL game still offers a sporting experience like no other.
Its a great product on TV, he says. Its an even greater product in person. Weve got to keep improving the experience at the game. Technology is going to provide a way to do that.
To that end, the Panthers aim to provide all the information and highlights within the stadium that are available if watching the game on TV. Plus, they aim to give the fan at the game amenities not available on TV.
The Panthers were among a handful of NFL teams last season to provide free Internet WiFi to all fans in the stadium. Also available for the first time last season was a Panthers app, which provided fans with all replays from the TV production truck. So, fans in the stadium could choose which TV replay angle they wanted to view on their cell phone.
For this coming season, the NFL has mandated that a camera be located in every teams home locker room. The home club can show, at its discretion, footage from the locker room to its fans on video boards.
Morrison says additional video boards can be used for informational and highlight purposes rather than for bombarding fans with commercial advertising during timeouts. Fantasy football fans at the game should be able to track statistics at the stadium from every game being played around the league.
Rather than adding 1,000 square feet to its team store, the Panthers also could take advantage of advanced technology in merchandise sales. Morrison says the day is not far off when fans can use their cell phone to order a team jersey with their own name emblazoned on the back, and have the item delivered to their seat later in the game.
One of the key elements in technology is that you have to have the (stadium) backbone, Morrison says. So, part of our renovation will be to strengthen our (stadium) backbone because thats whats going to happen. More and more things will be available from a technology standpoint.
You can bet the NFL will be ahead of the game when it comes to implanting those technological advances in their stadiums.