What's the Real Threat to Attendance

The conventional wisdom (just ask most sports columnists and many message board posters) is that sports attendance is falling and will continue to fall because live sports cannot compete with the experience of watching television. I think they are wrong.

The greatest risks to filling stadiums over the long-term have nothing to do with wide screen high resolution television screens.

Talk to people who are dedicated fans and the story will often start the same way my story starts, with family taking them to games. If a parent isn't taking a child to games, you miss the chance to develop new fans who have the early memories that connect them to a team.

More kids are growing up in single parent homes, and single parent homes typically have less disposable income that can be spent attending sport events, even if the child's parent or parents have an interest in such events.

The current trend is also for kids to be involved in many more after-school activities. Many organized youth sports events will conflict with spectator sports but the rise in the number of activities means less free time for families to engage in entertainment activities, another blow to spectator sports.

It has been suggested that video games and text messages are a problem taking the interest of the future fan. Both are social activities. Young people are talking to each other, they may be doing it by text message or talking over headsets during games but they are engaging with other people.

The lesson being missed by many in sports promotion is the desire to engage. They seem to think that people used to having 500 channels, millions of web videos to view, many music options, and so on want to sit and be passively entertained with something bombarded at them all game long. So they crank up the volume and take a stab at picking great music, yet most of the people in the stands have songs on their phone and have multiple Pandora or Spotify or Rdio "channels" that don't include the entertaining playlist picked for the game.

People who either skip TV ads on their DVR or click the skip ad button after 5 seconds get hit with multiple 30 second ads on video boards that seem painfully long to people who don't watch 30 second ads.

Even the engagement today at a stadium is highly limited and normally consists of sending a few camera people into the stands for a "Kiss Cam" or a dance off sponsored by some business, when much greater engagement could be achieved by using that sponsor time to present Instagram photos posted by people at the game, or Vine videos, or just tweeted comments.

There is little down time to talk with the people around you or time to engage with friends on social media.

One thing I've learned from watching Major League Soccer is the power of the "supporter's group". Most teams have fan driven groups that have strong Facebook groups and they get together during times without a game to create massive signs to be unfurled at the game to try to out-do the supporters of other teams. They socialize between games to work on the projects, eat and drink together, and have active social media groups. They unite around the idea of supporting the team with signs, they stand all game and spend virtually the entire game singing and doing chants. These socially engaged groups result in season ticket holder median ages of around 30 years old by creating tight knit groups of diverse people united by something fun they do together. They are participating spectators.

ESPN now has an article up on declining student attendance.

While many in pro sports and some in college sports think they they are competing for the "entertainment dollar" and see their competition as TV, movies, books, and concerts. I believe they have lost the battle by fighting the wrong war.

Sports teams are not competing for the entertainment dollar, they are competing for the social dollar. The competition isn't movies or TV but Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, hanging out at the mall or going to a party.

Read this excerpt from the ESPN article:
Adam Stillman, a senior at Michigan who attended all but one of the team's home games this year, shared his answers [to a university survery about factors involved in student attendance] with ESPN.com. How he prioritized his answers might scare administrators, many of whom have looked to Wi-Fi connectivity as the answer to attracting younger fans. Stillman ranked sitting with friends, sitting close to the field, the outcome of the game, tailgating, the student section atmosphere, food specials and entertainment before the importance of Wi-Fi.

Louder music, cool videos, fun contests all designed to increase the entertainment value, didn't score well. Making the game more social and more interactive were the keys mentioned.

To my knowledge, no sports team has ever created an app or web page where fans at a game can mark where they sit and make available to others their Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Linkedin, or Instagram information and give the user control over whether it is available to anyone, or just those attending, or just those in their immediate area so they can connect with one another outside the stadium.

It's time to stop wringing hands over HDTV and quit trying to replicate the experience of watching TV or a movie alone and start focusing on being a social event.