The National Football League, which is trying to head off a threatened work stoppage next season, is facing the third straight year of declining season ticket sales as teams struggle to attract fans to watch America's most popular professional sport in person.
The NFL expects season ticket sales to be down 5% this season. Attendance for the 32 teams is expected to fall 1% to 2%, says Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. League officials are predicting the lowest average attendance since 1998.
These declines aren't surprising considering the high price fans have to pay to watch the NFL live. Tickets for Thursday night's season opener between the Super Bowl champions New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings fetched an average price of $575 in the secondary market, according to the ticket search engine site FanSnap.
Overall, the site estimates that the market price for NFL tickets is up 64% versus a year ago, and ticket prices for certain teams including the Saints, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals have more than doubled. Prices charged by clubs directly, which have mostly stayed the same this year, aren't included in the FanSnap data. But given the scarcity of seats, a large percentage of fans attending NFL games pay much higher than face value for their tickets.
TV Viewership Keeps Rumbling Forward
"I can understand how the current economic situation could impact season ticket sales," says Christian Anderson, a FanSnap spokesman, in an email. "Fans still very much want to see the NFL product. I have to think HD TVs may also be hurting season ticket sales."
Indeed, TV networks including General Electric's (GE) NBC, which televised Thursday night's game, continue to report record viewership for pro football games. NBC Sports says Thursday's show was the highest-rated NFL regular season game in prime time in 13 years. The network's Sunday Night Football program was the fourth-most watched last year, trailing only American Idol (both nights) and Dancing With The Stars, according to Nielsen.
The regular season coverage on Disney-owned (DIS) ESPN, including Monday Night Football, ranked eighth. Indeed, in 2009 Monday Night Football enjoyed its highest viewership since it moved to the cable channel from ABC in 2006. Overall, average viewership of regular season games was about 18.4 million, up nearly 10% from the prior year, Nielsen says. And a record audience watched last year's Super Bowl.
In Jacksonville, Ticket Sales Are Up
Fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the fourth-smallest market and located in one of the states hit hardest by the recession, are among those hoping for better times. The Jaguars, who finished 7-9 last year and failed to make the playoffs, made moves in the off-season to fire up fans who stayed away last year due to the team's poor performance. Many pundits, though aren't optimistic things will get much better this year.
Nonetheless, media reports say the Jags sold 15,000 new season tickets, the most of any team in the NFL. Though that's the largest number of sales since the team's first season in 1995, the figures must be measured against the team's small base: Last year's attendance was so poor that nine of 10 games, including two preseason games, were blacked out.
Part of the change this year comes thanks to an intensive marketing blitz and a decision to freeze ticket prices. The Florida Times-Union reports that Sunday's home opener against the Denver Broncos, for whom hometown hero Tim Tebow of the University of Florida now plays, has sold out "and the team is cautiously optimistic that enough tickets will be sold to avoid blackouts for at least the next three home games, too."