The State of Spectator Sports
A decline in attendance for major professional and collegiate sports programs has front offices and athletic departments scrambling to find new ways to re-engage their fans, and bring them back to the home field. At first glance, attendance numbers reported by leagues such as Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) do not appear to be suffering from significant reductions in attendance. However, many times those leagues use the number of tickets sold as their figure rather than actual turnstile counts. The reality of true attendance data comes when programs count fans in seats.
A lack of people inside the gates doesn’t simply affect players on the field; it also translates into a hit to the bottom line for food, beverage, and merchandise revenue. A 2015 Samford Sports Business Report states that fans are still interested in the games. However with the saturation of TV coverage and online streaming, they prefer to watch from the comforts of their home, rather than spend an average of $443.93 to attend an NFL game. The challenge is two-fold: Revive the in-person game-day experience—which results in greater revenue—and renew the buzz and excitement that is the essence of watching live sports.
Most teams have started to implement dynamic ticket pricing to reduce costs for unsold tickets hours before a game and entice last minute buyers. MLB teams are using game passes sold on a monthly basis that allow access to limited areas of the ballpark, typically standing room only areas, for every home game during that specific month. Collegiate football programs are incentivizing students to attend games with everything from free tee shirts to post-game concerts and parties.
Responding to Shifting Capacity Needs
One option to minimize empty seats at a live event is to create flexible and adaptable seating that responds to shifting capacity needs. Football and baseball stadiums could remove upper deck seating and create new attractions to be traded out annually or every few years. To accomplish this, a stadium would establish a minimum threshold base stadium that is 60-to-75 percent of its current capacity. Venue owners could utilize the new and smaller stadium footprint to incorporate an innovation area that includes party decks, open air gathering areas with TVs and visual access to the action on the field, interactive displays, billboards, themed spaces that celebrate the team brand, or whatever appears to be the next fan attraction.
Removing upper deck seating doesn’t have to limit the capacity of the venue. If needed, this area could be reconfigured with portable seating for play-off games, all-star events, weekend rivalry match ups, or an increased demand for more seating. Several NFL stadiums are designed this way, allowing them to host championship games, and many arenas are designed to accommodate additional temporary seating during NCAA basketball tournament games.
With an emphasis on the game-day experience to bring back the fans, I pose the question: “what’s next?”
Re-Energizing the Brand
NASCAR racetracks are working hard to retain existing fans and attract new ones—and they are showing early signs of profound success. After experiencing declining attendance for several years, International Speedway Corporation (ISC) is taking a proactive approach in providing fans a better experience at its race tracks. It responded by bringing fans closer to the drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and the excitement of the infield.
For more than 20 years DLR Group has worked closely with ISC to provide unique experiences and engage fans at its facilities throughout the U.S. Our most recent project is Richmond Raceway Reimagined, an infield redevelopment that aims to get fans up close and personal with the sport’s icons. At the beginning of the planning process, ISC surveyed fans to better understand what would keep them coming to the races and potentially attract new fans. Survey responses indicated fans want greater access to the infield, garages, and Winner’s Circle. One respondent stated “I have done everything there is to do at Richmond but I have never been in the garages. How can I get closer to the action that occurs on the driver’s side of the track?”
DLR Group’s design lets fans inside the working garages so they can see up-close mechanics preparing the 850 horsepower race cars for competition, and gives them a front row view to NASCAR’s technical inspection process with an inspection lane positioned in the fan plaza. This proximity allows fans to follow their favorite car through the multi-step inspection. In addition, Victory Lane is reorganized to be more accessible and visible to fans. The experience includes upgraded food and beverage, shaded seating, and areas for pre and post-race entertainment.
DLR Group’s long-time partnership with ISC fueled the question of how can we take design elements from a NASCAR track’s infield and implement that in stadiums and arenas at professional and collegiate levels. In essence, how can we help venue and team owners elevate the fan experience to attract larger crowds back to watch the live event?
Elevating the Fan Experience
Younger fans no longer want to sit in a seat for a three-and-a-half-hour baseball game. They may want to arrive for the first pitch and stay for an inning or two in the standing room area in left field. Then they might leave the park to meet up with friends for coffee a few blocks down the street. And maybe they’ll stop by the park for the last couple of innings before heading home.
In order to bring back the fans, programs should consider creating an affordable, premium experience that is accessible to fans of all ages and means. Spaces and activities that were formerly off limits to fans could be designed into one-of-a-kind attractions for the average attendee.
Think about these possibilities:
- Seating and fan amenities in areas where players travel to and from the field, giving fans that personal contact with players and coaches;
- Access to the team’s post-game press conference;
- Observation areas that place fans in the front seat for the action, such as seating behind a baseball bullpen. This placement would elevate a fan’s sensory experience with the sound of the ball slam into the catcher’s glove, or the crack of bats coming from batting cages.
- Behind-the-scenes spaces that locate fans next to broadcasters calling a game, or put fans in the video studio to watch the production of a network broadcast.
- Watching a game from inside one of the hand-operated scoreboards at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, or Fluor Field in Greenville, South Carolina.
Whatever the solution, designers must be prepared to bring creative solutions to the table to help their clients bring fans back, and give those fans a new reason to attend the game in person. Put yourself in the fan seat. What would draw you back to the stadium if your team built a new venue?