For an important job interview, architect Bill Johnson prepared a slide presentation that included a photo of a fan settling into a plush seat in his basement to watch an NFL game on a high-definition big-screen TV, surrounded by all the comforts of a sports aficionado’s home.
“This is the guy we need to get back,” Johnson told those deciding whether to hire him. “We have to get the guy in the man cave to come back to the stadium.”
Johnson, a senior principal at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, got the job of designing the new Falcons stadium.
Like many pro sports organizations — and many college athletics programs, too — the Falcons fret that the experience of watching games at home has become so satisfying and so immersive that it is increasingly difficult to lure some fans from the couch to the stadium. Just as the Falcons have vowed to tackle that challenge in their new stadium, many sports entities are attempting to address it in large and small ways.
Stadiums and arenas have upgraded wireless Internet access so that fans can stay connected during games. The NFL will require all teams to have a camera in the locker room next season to provide pregame video exclusively for the stadium scoreboard. Even the SEC, despite its schools’ passionate fan bases, has a task force evaluating the fan experience at games.
For the NFL, business continues to boom by most measures: TV audiences are huge; more than 95 percent of tickets are sold; revenue soars. But league-wide attendance dipped slightly for four seasons before increasing slightly last season, and the league has confessed concern about how fans weigh the ease and quality of the at-home experience vs. the expense and excitement of the in-stadium experience.
To quantify the issue facing the Falcons, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested, under Georgia’s Open Records Act, a tally of the tickets scanned by bar-code readers at the gates of the state-owned, 71,000-seat Georgia Dome for each game in the past five seasons. Those figures represent the actual attendance (not including staff and media) as opposed to the announced attendance (which includes all tickets sold or distributed, whether used or not).
Last season, the Falcons’ regular-season home attendance averaged 62,782 per game and the two home playoff games averaged 66,420, according to the Dome’s figures. The smallest crowd was 56,733 on Sept. 30 against Carolina and the largest was 68,344 on Nov. 29 against New Orleans.
The Carolina game was the only one last season in which Dome attendance dipped below 60,000. However, the final four home games of the Falcons’ 2011 season drew between 55,435 and 58,816 fans, according to Dome figures.
Overall, for the past five seasons, the Falcons’ average actual home attendance for regular-season and postseason games was 60,500. The 2012 attendance was the best of the five years.
What all of those numbers show is that, even in a league as wildly popular as the NFL and even with a team as successful as the 2012 Falcons, some folks have decided they don’t need to be in the stadium to enjoy the game.
In fact, in a 2011 ESPN poll, 29 percent of NFL fans said they would prefer attending a game in person to watching it on TV — down from 54 percent in 1998.
Matt Broshar, 21, of Marietta, said he is a “huge sports fan” but content to watch games on TV, except possibly when he lands a free ticket. He enjoys the commentary and statistics he gets from the telecasts.
“And with TVs (in) high definition, it’s almost like you’re there,” Broshar said.
For a team embarking on building a stadium, the issue is front and center.
“It has to move the needle with respect to the fan experience,” Falcons president Rich McKay said recently of the stadium slated to open in 2017. “It has to be a game-changer, not just when it opens and everybody goes ‘wow’ but as you move forward.”
Johnson, the lead architect, has a lot of ideas for accomplishing that, although it’s too early to know which of them will be in the final blueprint.
He floated the idea of a bar that would be as long as the field, with a 100-yard-long video board on the ceiling to simulate the field and keep patrons up to speed on the game by constantly showing the position of the ball and first down-marker.
He suggested “impact seats” that vibrate with each big hit on the field. And a “fantasy football lounge” where fans could gather around multiple monitors to track the players on their fantasy teams. And a futuristic roof called the “oculus,” which would open above a 360-degree video board.
“We’re losing fans to technology,” Johnson told the Georgia World Congress Center Authority board. “Technology is advancing so rapidly and so much is available on your personal devices or in your home that it’s not as big a deal to come out to the game. … So (the challenge is), how can we create an experience that is better than staying in your basement and having access to everything that you want?”
Said Falcons owner Arthur Blank in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month: “Technology in the stadium has to be outstanding — not only competing with what you have at home, but actually (providing) enhancements you don’t have at home.”
An example: The NBA’s Brooklyn Nets introduced an app that allows fans in the new Barclays Center to stream video feeds of the action from different angles on their smartphones and tablets.
While new venues have a blank slate, established facilities face the challenge of adapting.
Atlanta’s 14-year-old Philips Arena is in the process of replacing 140 lower-bowl club seats with seven loge boxes, each including four permanent seats, two bar stools, counter space, access to a private bar — and two iPads for viewing replays and other content. The Hawks say they’re asking “low six figures” per box per season, food and beverage included.
Then there’s Georgia’s 84-year-old Sanford Stadium.
“Who would have thought five years ago we would be showing the Tennessee-Alabama game (on the video board) during a timeout of our game?” UGA athletic director Greg McGarity said. “But that is what the fans have at home, and we want to duplicate that experience.”
The SEC, which has led all conferences in average attendance for the past 15 college-football seasons, last year began showing replays of controversial plays on video boards while they are under review, giving the paying fan the benefit of what the TV viewer sees. The NFL did likewise.
“The people in the stadium (previously) were looking at a blank screen while people at home were watching 16 different angles,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. “We said, ‘That’s the kind of thing we’re going to change.’”
Slive expects more changes to emerge from the conference’s “Working Group on Fan Experience.”
Said McGarity: “It’s absolutely … a huge priority.”
And a huge, long-term challenge.
Scott Stepowany, 35, of Loganville, is an avid sports fan, but he increasingly prefers watching big games on an HDTV with friends at his home or theirs.
“For me, six, seven times out of 10, I’m probably going to pick that,” Stepowany said. “The only thing you don’t get is the energy from the crowd when there’s a big first down or a big home run.”