Thought experiment: If a sports team plays and no one is around to see it in person, does it make a sound?
That was the question gnawing at me while I sat in a particularly lonely section of a White Sox game in April. Television ratings for the Sox are reportedly up from last year, but there are times when the total number of fans watching at U.S. Cellular Field look as if they could all squeeze into a single Chicago sports bar.
Why pay big bucks to watch your favorite team on a glorified television?
It’s not just a scuffling baseball franchise struggling to get asses in seats. Sure, a special event like the World Cup can break attendance records, but most sports are having the opposite problem. MLB attendance is down almost 400,000 from this time last year and NASCAR faced barren grandstands during a recent race in Delaware. Lottery-bound NBA teams like the Detroit Pistons can’t fill their arenas—even when the franchise gives away tickets for free. Even mighty college football is showing signs of surprising weakness. The Florida Gators, the most popular team in the football-mad Sunshine State, have witnessed a steep drop in students going to games. In their November loss to lowly Georgia Southern, the Wall Street Journal reported that the student section was less than half full.
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to solve the Case of the Missing Fans. To go to a game in 2014 means devoting time to travel—often through brainmelting traffic—and then paying a premium for tickets, parking and mediocre stadium food and beer.Then much of your time in the stands is spent craning your neck watching the action on a bigger-than-life-sized Jumbotron instead of the actual human beings below. Why pay big bucks to watch your favorite team on a glorified television? There are exceptions, of course. Hockey and soccer are both examples of sports better enjoyed with more of a bird’s-eye-view of the action as opposed to the focused-on-the-ball/puck perspective of TV broadcasts—but only if you’ve got the right seats.
The fact that college and professional sports attendance figures haven’t suffered an even greater nosedive is testament to the power of ritual and tradition over rationality. Sports can act sometimes as a glamorized cult where dragging yourself to the big game can feel as obligatory as attending a Sunday church service. There’s also the factor of owning “I-was-there!” bragging rights on social media and, yeah, tailgating can (sometimes) be fun if you love the combination of cheap beer and standing around in a parking lot for five straight hours.
My prediction is this: If owners and college presidents can’t find creative ways to improve the stadium experience and drive down costs, common sense will prevail in five to ten years. We’ll still be watching sports, but on our 3-D, 100-inch, Super Ultra High Definition TV’s. The cheap seats? They’ll all become the empty seats.