Why you should care

If professional sports franchises really want to put your butt in a seat, they should start with your La-Z-Boy.

When was the last time you actually went to a game?

You’re not alone. Most of us have not attended a pro sporting event for a long time. Attendance rates at most major U.S. sports, from football to basketball to major league baseball, which opens this week, have declined or leveled off over the past few years — with no foreseeable end in sight.

What can our favorite teams do to get more of us through the turnstile? Simple: Bring the turnstile closer. Collect our tickets while we lounge in the living room or multitask on our iPads. It’s time to embrace the fully-wired, HD-home theater venue that is the future of sports fandom and start growing the stay-at-home, digital fan base.

It’s time for virtual season tickets.

Take our ticket from us while we lounge in the living room or multitask on our iPads.

Declining Attendance, Not Interest

“The drop-off in attendance for live sporting events is getting worse,” says Lee Igel, a professor of sports management at New York University.

According to Igel, there are a number of factors at play, from a recovering economy to bad weather to higher ticket prices. But for many fans, it boils down to this: Once you add up the traffic, the parking and the costly concessions, it gets harder to justify spending 5-6 hours of your life at a stadium event when you have HD TV, an array of Internet options and a really comfy couch waiting for you at home.

To stem declining attendance rates, many pro sports franchises have tried to enhance “the stadium experience.” They’ve expanded food offerings to include sushi and gourmet salads, added post-game concerts and fireworks, and bolstered stadium WiFi. Some NFL teams have even installed large stadium screens to make it easier for fans to watch other games and track their fantasy teams.

But it doesn’t appear to be enough. According to a recent ESPN poll, just 29 percent of NFL fans said they would prefer to watch a game in the stadium, down from 41 percent in 1998.

Man catching virtual football

Source Jeff Minton/Gallery Stock

Declining attendance rates, however, do not signal declining interest. By one estimate, more than 200 million fans in the U.S. are interested in regularly following their favorite pro sports team, but only a tiny fraction of those (3.2 million) actually buy season tickets. The level of commitment may be there, but many fans simply cannot make good on that commitment given limitations on their time and finances.

Many fans already act like virtual season-ticket holders — they just put together the package for themselves.

Besides, for the millions of us who do not live close to a pro team or who have family, work and other demands on our time, it doesn’t matter if they start serving dollar caviar in the bleachers; we just aren’t going to become regular attendees, much less season ticket holders.

Or at least not traditional season-ticket holders.

The Virtual Season-Ticket Package

The very same factors that conspire against the turnstile point toward the future of sports fandom and a host of untapped revenue sources. The future is the virtual season-ticket package.

How might it work? Well, it starts with consolidating the diverse range of existing services. Many fans already act like virtual season-ticket holders — they just put together the package for themselves. A baseball fan might, for example, subscribe to MLB.TV to watch games online, visit official team websites, participate in unofficial fan club events and interact with other fans and even players through an assortment of social media outlets and fan blogs.

Since the leagues and teams control most of the underlying assets driving fan interest in these activities, there’s no reason that they can’t be the ones to bundle them together and offer them to fans through a single portal.

“Think of the current market of season-ticket holder benefits as hundreds of pick-up sticks. The virtual season ticket could bring order to this chaos,” claims Andy Dolich, former COO of the San Francisco 49ers and executive VP of the Oakland Athletics, who has been a leading proponent of the idea.

Such a package would capture revenues from already engaged fans and facilitate additional engagement from casual fans — all, as Dolich suggests, “without cannibalizing existing team profit centers.” The broadcasts of undersold home games could still be blacked out in local markets to protect gate receipts, though hopefully expanded virtual offerings would help accelerate the trend toward a less draconian use of this tactic in the NFL, MLB and other leagues.

For a team like the Tampa Bay Rays — with an outdated stadium and low attendance levels — attracting fans in Seoul or Caracas could be a game-changer.

In addition to packaging existing assets, teams could provide virtual season-ticket holders with new online experiences in much the same way that some franchises have already started to offer regular season-ticket holders “augmented reality” and other perks. These add-ons could range from behind-the-scenes access to the clubhouse and team road trips to direct engagement with players, coaches and ownership to new fantasy and social gaming options.

The possibilities abound for raising the level of engagement for existing, casual fans. But the best reason for teams to go virtual is to attract new fans — perhaps millions of them from around the world.

Opening New Markets

No doubt, watching sports will continue to evolve, just like watching television has already. Some viewers will seek out on-demand offerings to consume as they have the time; others will seek out forums in which they can interact live with others as games and events unfold. Pro teams and leagues should be encouraging these trends and capturing value from them.

One way the virtual season ticket could do this is by providing a gateway for teams to tap into foreign markets to expand their fan bases. And it pays to be a first mover in this market: As shown by the Brooklyn Dodgers and the African-American community in the late 1940s, and again more recently by the Seattle Mariners and their Japanese fan base, communities of supporters remain loyal — for decades even — to the franchises that first make a concerted effort to embrace them.

The benefits from investing in a global, virtual fan base are even more pronounced for small-market teams. For a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, who must compete with big-market titans like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox every year — with an outdated stadium and low attendance levels — attracting fans in Seoul or Caracas could be a game-changer.

Sure, the taste of a hot dog and the smell of the grass are nice, but not shelling out $8 for that weiner is also pretty nice. And if Major League Baseball is willing to schedule Opening Day at the Sydney Cricket Ground in a bid to expand the sport’s horizons, then surely it won’t mind bringing the game a little bit closer to you as well. You can always pop outside between innings for that hit of fresh air.

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