Live Sports in America: Do the NFL, MLB, & NBA over-manage the fan experience? A Sidelines Showdown

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

Welcome back to the Wednesday edition of the Sidelines Showdown. Today’s topic should have significantly less racial slurs in it compared to Monday, but it will be entertaining nonetheless.

The topic du jour concerns the live sporting experience for the fan. One major point of discussion might be whether or not seeing a game live is even a priority for the average sports fan in this day and age. With cameras capturing every possible angle of every single thing that happens in a game, people are opting for the game day experience from the comfort of their own couch.

With that, the leagues and teams are doing what they can to enhance the live event and entice fans to purchase a ticket. What we have now is spectacle along with the sport itself. Giveaways, theme nights, fireworks, HD jumbotrons, animal sacrifices, and Drake are but some of the tactics employed to get butts in the seats. But is it too much? Are the fans that already want to be at the game the ones who need more noise?

Today our panelists will discuss how they feel about the live game experience. Things to consider might be – are some sports better live or viewed from home? Does security play a factor in going to a live sporting event, and what can be done to feel safer? But mostly, let us discuss the idea of potential over-management of the live experience. Is the courting of the casual fan phasing out the hardcore fan?

The order of the posting shall be Dean Lake, Krithic Annamalai, and Paul Mawdsley. As per usual, I shall be awarding 1,000 points for their first two comments and then the floor is open for everyone.

Let’s get it on.

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

@Dean Lake is on the clock

Dean Lake
Dean Lake
Editor

For me, the "live sporting event experience" began in the early 70s. My dad would take me to semi-pro hockey games at Memorial Coliseum. Talk about an eye-opener for a kid. It was a beer-swilling crowd and the place was LOUD. It was nothing like I'd seen on tv, where play was only interrupted by vapid commercials. The fans were excited not only because their team was winning, but also because they were drunk.

There wasn't really anything to do as a fan between periods other than drink. Sure, there was the occasional fan thrown on the ice to make a fool of himself shooting a puck across the rink, but that and the weak audio system playing organ musak wasn't enough to keep a fan seated. This had to be by design. What team owner would want to keep the fans in their seats when there is money to be made slinging beer...and the hotdogs that just might sober them up just a little.

The game experience was a little better when I started going to Trailblazer games in the same arena in 1976. There was less beer drinking, but the entertainment was non-existent. No one really cared, though. How could you when your team is FINALLY good? Things starteed changing in the late 80s and early 90s, however. The speakers grew larger, the cheerleader skirts grew shorter, and every inch of "down time" real estate became been filled with any "act," no matter how mind-numbingly inane.

The impetus for all of this was clear. Sports teams knew it money wasn't made on the single dude coming to the games, but rather on families who buy t-shirts and entire food trays. To draw these crowds in, the "entertainment" between the entertainment became all consuming. Kids love that stuff, often even more than the games themselves. The speaker volume creates an experience where there sometime isn't one...especially when your team is losing.

Today, I'd never go to a Blazer game with a buddy. I only go when I want to have a family outing...a rather expensive one at that, so not often. The beer-swilling crowds I experienced in my youth are gone, so it is a safe, fun thing to do as a treat. As for myself? I'd much rather lay on the couch. Live games are not meant for me.

I actually prefer watching basketball games at the stadium

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

Go @Krithic Annamalai go

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

@Paul Mawdsley, you up to throw down?

Krithic Annamalai
Krithic Annamalai
Elite Columnist

I actually prefer watching basketball games at the stadium. So I definitely go to the game when I can. The buzz in the building and the communal atmosphere make it even better. Oracle Arena is one of my favorite venues. There really is no better place to experience a big game than at the stadium. But I think now, most sports fans prefer watching the big game on TV because they miss too much by actually being there. Some sports are definitely better seen in person, other sports are better seen on TV. IMO, I think the NFL is more fun to watch on TV because I actually like listening to the analysts give their perspective.

Paul Mawdsley
Paul Mawdsley
Senior Analyst

@Steve Ausburne I'm always ready to throw down!

Sports teams are not over-managing the live sports experience for fans. The entire concept of over-management is being perpetuated by the ‘real fans’. These are the fans that will go to games, cheer, purchase merchandise, and be overly involved in everything team related because they have a passion for the team and/or sport. Regardless of everything being done at an event, these fans could enjoy themselves simply sitting and watch the game live with no ‘distractions’.

With the advancement of technology, the distractions have grown significantly but are still very minor in the scheme of things and in reality, add value to the experience of the ‘real fans’. With the music, cheerleaders, contests, games, video board animations, it is really a nice benefit to create even more excitement around the team. Granted, these extras can be quite cheesy and may not add too much value, but I would be that many ‘real fans’ quite enjoy the giveaways and discounts and other promotions run by the team. Having worked in minor league baseball and hockey, I know for a fact that fans come out in droves for a quality giveaway such as a bobble head. Before bobble head giveaways, there was always a lineup a few hundred people long an hour before the gates even opened, and this is MINOR league sports! Most of these people who came early were the hardcore fans, the season-ticket holders, the ‘REAL FANS’. Many casual fans came and were excited to get a bobble head or whatever the giveaway was, but it was added value to all fans.

Sports entities do very much care about their ‘real fans’ and want to provide them a great experience, however they know that this group of fans only fills a small portion of the seats on a given night. Therefore they create these theme nights and giveaways to entice the casual fan to come to the game rather than go to the movies or any other alternative. Theme nights have become such a popular way to get the casual fans out t games that they have exhausted most of the good ideas. Teams have resorted to some fairly wonky themes that have been absolute failures. Check out this list; http://bleacherreport.com/articles/673215-the-25-dumbest-promotions-in-sports-history/page/16 (My personal favorite is Pre-Planned Funeral Night)

Essentially, teams are using these different techniques to manage the game so that the casual fans remain interested and focused on the game. As Mark Cuban said, they are trying to eliminate “as many of the ‘look down’ moments” as possible. While smart phones have opened the opportunity for tweet to win and picture contests, they are also taking away from the excitement and enjoyment of live sports.

“Think back to the first professional sporting event you ever went to. It was probably a parent taking you to the game. What do you remember? Do you remember the score? A home run? A jump shot? A pass play? Or do you remember who you were with?“

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

Second response order: @Krithic Annamalai, @Paul Mawdsley, then @Dean Lake

Krithic Annamalai
Krithic Annamalai
Elite Columnist

Watching games on TV is cheaper and more convenient. So is staying in bed all day and letting the world pass you by. The point of life is to get out and do something! Even if by this era's standards, that means nothing more than getting out and watching other people do something. Our HD screens can show us close-ups so detailed we can count the steroid acne on a player's body, but what they can't convey is what it feels like to be there in person. Sports aren't just about watching the game, they are also about being human and interacting with a community. They're about cheering and rooting and booing and making yourself heard. Oh yeah, and seeing a packed building on TV makes the game even more fun to watch!

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

@Paul Mawdsley come get some

Dean Lake
Dean Lake
Editor

@Paul Mawdsley We are sort of in agreement that management caters to the fan that spends the most money, however I really believe the common denominator for those purchases are children, so nearly all the mini-events between actual game play are geared toward the little ones. Management wants these kids to become attached to the stadium experience as much as they want them to become attached to the team and be life-long fans. I think your Cuban quote nails this idea perfectly.

@Krithic Annamalai Do you ever get annoyed by all the noise and silly crap that goes on at a game? Or do you simply tune it all out?

Paul Mawdsley
Paul Mawdsley
Senior Analyst

According to this infographic, https://teammarketing.com/tmr/24, more than 50% of fans of the NHL, NBA, and MLB would rather go to a game live than watch on TV. Although, for the NFL 74.24 would rather watch on television. With this information, you can understand how much the advanced camera angles and replays are benefits to the watchers at home. I think one of the main deterrents for fans is that cost of a single game ticket. The price for the NFL game tickets are much more expensive on average than any other sport. This is where teams need to provide fans with more value, which is why they have fireworks, giveaways, and other activities.

The sports teams are not phasing out the hard core sports fans, but actually are trying to give them more value for their money and provide them an opportunity to physically interact with the team. Yes, the ideas are mainly focused on casual fans, but the ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Safety is hardly a concern with regards to the over-management of live sports, however, as I mentioned earlier, if they can maintain fan focus and achieve less ‘look-downs’, then fans would be able to react to foul balls (or the many bats Edwin Encarnacion hurls into the crow).

The excitement of a live game, coupled with the added value teams are giving fans makes it such a great experience. Remember, they are not in the business of selling sport. They are in the business of selling fun and an emotional experience.

Paul Mawdsley
Paul Mawdsley
Senior Analyst

@Dean Lake I agree a lot of mini-events and pre-game festivals are kid-friendly, but that is only smart business. Get the kids interested so that the parents will purchase tickets. If they also provide a fun atmosphere inside, then they may have earned themselves a fan for live. This in turn would result in future revenue. Seems pretty good to me and I'm sure most parents wouldn't mind their kid wanting to spend an afternoon at the ball park knowing that they will have fun.

Steve Ausburne
Steve Ausburne
Elite Columnist

@Dean Lake receives 200 points for comment 1 and 150 for comment 2
@Krithic Annamalai receives 125 points for comment 1 and 125 for comment 2
@Paul Mawdsley receives 175 points for comment 1 and 225 for comment 2

The debate is open y'all - tell us what you think...

Josh Mahoney
Josh Mahoney
Editor

I don't think there is anything better than being at a live playoff hockey game. By far the most electric crowd and at least in Boston it can get ear splitting loud. While you may not get all the angles and analysts coverage that you get from a t.v. the whole experience just can't be matched from my couch. I'm so bad that I find myself standing and looking at the screen from about a foot away when a game is on and I'm stuck at home trying to will the crowd to get louder.

Patrick Zimmerman
Patrick Zimmerman
Editor

@Josh Mahoney I heartedly agree, and live playoff games (in most sports) stand out because of the amount that the crowd is into the game. It's the people attending who give spirit to an event, a sense of importance, hanging on every pitch/shot/pass.

I would say that one of the things that detracts from the American sports experience (compared to, for example, a rivalry soccer game), is precisely the amount to which the crowd is in some ways a mob, out of control, a bit savage. It's less safe, and certainly less under the control of the home team (both which I see as the primary reason that US sports teams try to manage their home arena environments), but it's a much more intense experience.

If I had to trade off some degree of safety (to a limit, of course) and a bit of a family-friendly environment for one that seems much more authentically spontaneous, I'd gladly do so.

Dean Lake
Dean Lake
Editor

@Paul Mawdsley A big part of the NFL's problem with non-game entertainment (and this applies to NCAA football, as well), is that the stadiums are so enormous and the fields so large that it is nearly impossible for fans to see anything going on that isn't game related. Sure, they can throw it up on the big screen, but that doesn't have the same holding power as watching mascots doing flying dunks off trampolines during the down time of an NBA game. Another problem is that football fans drink heavily during games and are vastly more obnoxious than NBA or MLB fans. Who wants to take their kids to see that? Lastly, football as entertainment benefits much more tha other sports from instant replay. The vast new video screens in football stadiums help somewhat with that, but it isn't quite the same as watching replays from the comfort of your own home - like @Josh Mahoney pointed out.

Dean Lake
Dean Lake
Editor

@Patrick Zimmerman You've seen the same thing happen in the EPL and other euro football leagues, but they have taken a different path to ridding their stadiums of drunken mobs - they've priced the commoner out. I doubt this was totally by design, but rather the result of the euro leagues competing and against one another for top talent causing ticket prices to skyrocket. It is a rich man's game now, both on and off the pitch.

But getting back to the "entertainment" question, will we begin to see this managed style creep into soccer here in the States? I haven't seen it so far. My guess would be it won't happen simply because there are no breaks other than the half, and concessions are a huge money maker. Best let the fans have some time to go spend their disposable income on $10 beers and $6 hot dogs.

Jere❌y Banner❌an
Jere❌y Banner❌an
Senior Analyst

I've never actually been to one of the four major professional sports live (besides preseason basketball and that was...zzzzzz), but I'd much rather go to an Ohio State football or basketball game than watch it on TV. I love the college atmosphere, especially a night game between two really good teams...OOH WEE! I'm getting excited just thinking about it. Is it football season yet?

Dean Lake
Dean Lake
Editor

@Jeremy Bannerman I agree that the college atmosphere is the best, but there are some downsides to it as well for families bringing young children. The fans, both older adults and the students, can be very rude and obnoxious. When I was a student it was rather humorous to watch Husky fans get bombarded with vitriol when they visited Eugene. It isn't funny any more, though that problem is not as bad as it once was. Still, a college football game is not a place to bring kids, and I doubt it ever will be. I'm sure this a major reason kids gravitate to pro sports rather than college sports.

Anthony Zapata
Anthony Zapata
Senior Analyst

When I left the Valley of the Sun as an adult I worked at an experiential marketing agency in Seattle. I got the chance to work for a client at Century Link Field the year they took on the NFLs first official stadium soft drink not made by the big two. Another of our clients had big sponsorship at Husky football home games.

What exactly did the spectacle of boisterously challenging the 12th Man to sample flavors like "perspiration," "dirt," and "turf" for prizes (mostly better tasting soda) have to do with the Hawks season? Probably nothing. The t-shirts were dope though, and people loved them. At Husky games especially, where getting fans to engage required more interaction the difference takeaway for me was clear. Done right, our work turned our client's marketing dollars into experiences that rallied communities around teams.

There's plenty of marketing and promotions that get the nod around a sports team that don't help extend the brand experience much. Look, it's hard to sell a device that tracks teens driving habits and lowers insurance costs at an afternoon MLB game. Trust me on that one. It's even more difficult when your position on the totem pole means you don't dare explain try to explain why the brand synergy with the stadium's name doesn't make khaki pants, a white polo, and a ball cap advisable wardrobe when approaching 15 year olds about said device. But when the hustle is done right, man? It. Is. Dope. I've seen it. Tens of thousands of fans on television holding up individual banners that form a wall of support for their team. Having to turn back dozens of them outside the entry to the stadium because there's no more to be had as the game approaches upset city and all hands are needed on deck to cheer the team through the biggest win of the season. And knowing that before the game got started you had to really hustle to get that work off, because fans found it a bit off-putting that you casually walked into their tailgate party and started chatting people up in their crew.

Having had a hand in creating those experiences for fans personally I'm willing to give teams some room to figure out how best to do their marketing thing. Doesn't mean I won't be critical of someone whose execution is doing the game wrong though.

Obie Obumseli
Obie Obumseli
Senior Analyst

For me I'm a bit conflicted. I've never been to a game at the professional level but I have had the pleasure of watching the Iowa State Cyclones upset some teams in the Hilton Coliseum and Jack Trice Stadium. Though I enjoy watching the game in the comfort of my home so I don't have to worry about any distractions and I can listen to the analyst, nothing replaces the experience of watching a sport live in person. The feeling you get seeing so many fans, like yourself, cheer creates a special connection that is hard get from just watching the game on your couch.

Dalton Abel
Dalton Abel
Analyst

Having been lucky enough to attend a game in all four professional sports, it seems hockey has by far the greatest enhancement from the crowd. However, October baseball at Yankee Stadium is nothing short of electric. In a way, I loathe fans of small market teams such as Golden State, Indiana, Oklahoma City, or Arizona (Cardinals), because they can attend games at a much more reasonable price. The ticket and transportation costs, more than any perceived lack of excitement within the crowd, is what keeps me away from the venue. That being said, I cannot deny the convenience of NFL RedZone after the Giants finish playing or are on commercial. I do enjoy the live entertainment during breaks because it does keep my friends and I from looking at our phones, which in this day and age is invaluable.

Keith Fuchs
Keith Fuchs
Senior Analyst

I don't think there is anything better than a live college football game. It is sheer pandemonium and there are literally 100,000 fans cheering with passion and ferver you only see in the World Cup or NHL playoffs. I've been to several bowl games and it is a fantastic experience.

Nick Hastings
Nick Hastings
Columnist

The toughest sell for me (in terms of buying tickets to a game rather than watching it at a sports bar or at home) is the cost of experience-enhancers -- paying $10 for a beer or $12 for a plate of hot wings is tough, especially at slower games with lots of down time (think baseball or maybe football). The stadium experience, however, is unique and inclusive enough -- assuming the team you choose has an active fan base and the seats aren't empty -- that most of these promotions simply add to the fun.

I was lucky enough to participate in an interview with Chris Gargano, the SF Giants Senior Director of Marketing and Entertainment. His job is to maximize fans' enjoyment at games by managing all in-game entertainment content. He took pride in the fact that the Giants, even in down years, consistently sell out games due to the enjoyable AT&T Park experience.

It makes sense that die-hard fans would take exception to the micromanagement of the stadium experience -- they came to watch their favorite team perform, and we all know how it feels to be distracted by a "Kiss cam" or something similar while the game is in action. But casual fans make up a large part of ticket sales and revenue for teams, and teams will continue to market promotions to get those casual fans in the seats... Sports (even college sports.....especially college sports?) are a business first, after all.

Josh Mahoney
Josh Mahoney
Editor

@Dean Lake I can understand the concern for a family friendlier environment but being one of those people who gets drunker at sporting events than is probably adviseable, I'm always aware of if there are children nearby and adjust my actions accordingly. I like to think that most sports fans (and I understand there are a lot of exceptions to the rule) feel this way. Even if there is one guy who is being obscene usually he is with friends or someone who will try to get him under control for the sake of the kids. I just know that as a kid I absolutely cherished everytime I went to a live sporting event. Now knowing just how much that set my father back monetarily I have on several occassions thanked him for doing it.

Anthony Perez
Anthony Perez
Senior Analyst

I have been able to live lots of places. So I get to participate in the fan experience there. I support teams in Africa (Orlando Pirates - Soweto, South Africa), Europe (Arsenal) and America. I've had strawberries at Wimbledon and hot dogs at Yankee Stadium. Drank Coca-Cola in the Cotton Bowl and sold Cokes at Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium. I've screamed for the Capital's, Orioles, Ravens, Wizards and Colts. But also for my Orlando Pirates in Soweto and Kaiserslautern in Germany. I've seen the my beloved Cowboys play in London and was was thrilled by Downhill Bill Johnson at the Lauberhorn when he bacame the first US Male to whin a world cup downhill. All this has taught me that Fandom everywhere shares similar elements. But there are compelling differences.

For example, take the fan experience in English Premier Football League. The first professional club soccer match I ever saw was at old Highbury field. The opponent? Tottenham Hotspurs. Having my first premier league fan experience at a local derby between two heated rivals set the bar pretty high. But what really got me was the proximity of everything.

I lived in Stoke Newington. It was January 1989. The January of the year Arsenal won the league in a dramatic number one vs number two end of the season match that had somehow pitted them against highly favored Liverpool. But it was a nice enough day. And good thing because to get to Arsenal we walked. As we left the house on Dynavor Road we joined a trickle of three other faithful coming along. The trickle converged into streams of people from the surrounding streets emptying onto Stoke Newington Church Street. The number 73 rattled past. It barely stopping as people jumped of the open back - we could to that back then - and combined into what became a mighty river of cacophonous support. Passed the Rose and Crown public house on the corner of Albion Road the river thickened down Church Street and then turned sharply right to empty into Clissold Park. Footballs and scarves flying everywhere. It was an amazing sight. But it flowed NOT to the stadium...not just yet. The human confluence of the Arsenal vs Tottenham derby inundates every pub between Seven Sisters and Highbury fields. The ones nearest the park fill up quickly. By hte time we arrived at the Gunners they were full and we splashed into the streets like so much floatsam. It was an amazing routine and regular street party. I could not help but feel a sense of belonging. It was my neighborhood club. But the clincher was that Whitehart Lane the home of Hotspurs is about three miles or so up the High Road. And their supporters were also streaming out of the tube. Some had also walked through the park to their pub. The edgy tension was a thick and inescapable reminder of the dark side of English football.

We stood in the old North Stands with the rest of the faithful. This is where the proximity became most magnificently apparent. Football in England is more...intimate. I could see every line on Michael Thomas' face. And when Paul Merson celebrated it wasn't a flashy on stage piece end zone dance it was almost a Lambeu Leap. He celebrated with us not at us. And it was in UNISON with the faithful. Arsenal 2 Tottenham Hotspurs 0. RESULT! And I was hooked.

Patrick Zimmerman
Patrick Zimmerman
Editor

@Anthony Perez Great description of the intimacy and intensity of the fan experience in places like Highbury. I have to ask, have you been back since they moved to the Emirates? I would guess that the actual architecture, the physical space itself, lent a lot to that experience, and the new stadium will have lost something (at least temporarily, until new patterns of behavior embed themselves among fans).

I've seen games at very old stadiums, most memorably El Molinón in Gijón, where a Copa del Rey quarterfinal with Athletic Bilbao was the most intense and amazing fan experience I've ever had. I was 10ft behind the goal, for €30, and the Basque supporters were kept behind a chain-link fence, for their own protection. It was amazing. The Vicente Calderón (Atlético de Madrid), built in 1966, was vastly less densely packed, and had vastly less personality. It wasn't just that the Sporting de Gijón fans were more into the game than the Atleti ones (they probably weren't), but the way the stands were designed, that made everything seem so much closer together.

A day Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field was probably the closest I've approached that feeling of place in the US, and when they (eventually) update the stadium, with JumboTron, I can't help but feel that will be lost, to some degree.

Charles B.
Charles B.
Senior Analyst

Communities partly gain sports franchises in order to let it serve as a bonding agent for its citizens. This is why the whole t.v. experience is, although a good imitation it still is an imitation. Gimics are no different and cheapen the experience. Money is the primary quarter back, point guard or pitcher that sets the tone for a sport these days. How else could 'Jerry's World' be explained. We have become a society that can pay a ticket to a game (a la Jerry's World and watch the game on a jumbo tron (simply because it is too big and loud to be ignored and not because we desire to......because we could have done it at home) and realize we could have done it more convenient and cheaper way much closer to our kitchen..........and now feel like we obtained "empty calories" for our souls. Yes, the experience is more involved as ever but it can never duplicate Wrigley or Fenway or Lambau or Boston Garden. A father will never speak fondly with his son years later about how many t-shirts he got out of a pop gun that shot them up into the bleachers compared to the smell of fresh grass, a brat and that game day program that is crumbled but is now worth hundreds maybe thousands of dollars that serves as a prism of that special time and place that brings loved ones together and murders all differences that tears a community apart and heals if only for those 2 or 3 hours.

Anthony Perez
Anthony Perez
Senior Analyst

@John Brown I think one of the key reasons the fan experience is so managed we have been corralled and cajoled into a one way relationship. The roll of fans is to consume a product produced by the franchises. Consumers have almost no equity in the deal at all that produces the sports entertainment product.

So if the owner of the Baltimore Colts wants to move his franchise. It's his property. We can talk about the public good and stuff. But that is really all it is...talk. A fan has no standing in that sense. Oh yes we are told stuff designed to make us feel more engaged. But ultimately the ologarchy of owners has responsibility and authority.

Now there is another way. Become an owner. Currently other than Green Bay Packers I can't think of any mutual ownership vehicles for sport in the USA. Ownership of the spectator sport has been in all of my life time the domain of the super rich. Not the super fan.

I suppose it doesn't have to be that way. I mean Green Bay actually works well. And they do it in other places. So why do we as fans not have equity? Why do we not take risks.? Why do we limit our engagement to consuming?

Alex Hoegler
Alex Hoegler
Editor

No not at all..