Atlanta Falcons CMO Jim Smith is rewarding loyal season ticket holders with the kind of stadium “memories” they can’t get from watching on TV at home. For the second year, Smith is offering season-long fans game-day “experiences” such as a visit from team cheerleaders to their seat. Or a spot on the field during player introductions at the Georgia Dome.
It’s not like some drunk up in the nosebleed seats can simply request a cheerleader like he’s ordering a beer. Using the free Experience app, season ticket holders must redeem “memory points” on the Thursday before a home game. Security guards are on hand just in case—but are rarely needed.
“We never put our cheerleaders in danger. That sensational crap is so unfair to the cheerleaders—and the fans who request it,” says Smith, who adds that most of the visits are ordered by parents for their cheerleader daughters. “It’s truly about an experience that a parent, or a bunch of friends, want to have.”
So goes the NFL’s marketing game plan to get its fans off the couch—and back into stadiums. High ticket prices, personal seat licenses (PSLs) and rowdy fans have led some die-hards to give up live games in favor of watching for free from home. The $10 billion league wants these couch potatoes back. And it wants season ticket holders—the lifeblood of the league—to keep coming, explains Brian Lafemina, the NFL’s svp of club business development. The league and its 32 franchises are pushing the marketing envelope to do it.
The NFL is in some ways a victim of its own success and innovation. As its TV networks add more coverage, more camera angles and more replays, the gap between the at-home and in-stadium viewing experiences has grown wider. Throw in the two RedZone Channels (which whip viewers around to potential scoring plays) offered by the league and DirecTV, and it’s a wonder fantasy players and bettors ever leave the Barcalounger. “TV has fundamentally changed the way people watch our game—and that’s a great thing,” says Lafemina. “We have to do the same inside the stadium. You’re seeing our clubs become more innovative than ever before.”
Simply put, the league is a TV juggernaut. Regular-season games averaged 17.6 million viewers in 2013, according to Nielsen. (Second most ever behind 17.9 million in 2010.) NFL telecasts accounted for 34 of the 35 most-watched TV shows last fall. NBC’s Sunday Night Football has ranked as the most-watched show during the full TV season two years in a row. That’s spurred the always ambitious league to try to take over Thursday nights with a prime-time package split between CBS and NFL Network.
That’s all great news for the league’s TV partners—NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and NFL Network—which charge advertisers millions. Ditto for sponsors such as General Motors and Procter & Gamble, which collectively paid $1.07 billion to link their brands to the NFL Shield last year, according to IEG.
But it’s a potential long-term problem for the league and clubs, which want fans to believe the best seat in the house is still at the stadium, not the living room. It’s not that the NFL is struggling to put butts in seats—attendance is back up the past two years after four straight years of declines. The NFL sold 98 percent of available tickets last season, and only two games were blacked out on TV.
But last season’s regular season attendance of 16,837,676 over 256 games (or 65,772 per game) was still down 3 percent from the record 17,345,205 in 2007. That’s troubling to NFL executives who worry young fantasy players aren’t attending because they can’t get the real-time stats at the stadium.
Blame it also on rising costs during a lingering recession. Average ticket prices for NFL games rose 3.1 percent to $81.54 last season, according to Team Marketing Report. TMR estimated the price for a family of four to buy tickets, food, beverages and parking at $459.65. Some vacations cost less.
And so the league and teams are sprucing up the in-stadium experience by cracking down on abusive fans through its “Fan Code of Conduct,” showing RedZone highlights on Jumbotrons and improving WiFi reception so fans can stay connected via smartphones.
But they are also ramping up their marketing efforts with more advertising, more access, more technology. Such as:
• What better way to stroke season ticket holders than by casting them in national TV commercials? Grey Advertising, New York, will air a new spot for the NFL Ticket Exchange starring real season ticket holders from six different teams. The spot will break the first Sunday of the season, Sept. 7.
• The Dallas Cowboys will join close to a dozen NFL teams using the Experience app this season. The app allows fans to order experiences “you used to have to be a VIP to get access to,” says Experience president Ben Ackerman. For example, a Falcons fan last season used his points to upgrade his family’s seats, place his son in the tunnel for player introductions and photograph his daughter with the mascot. He topped it off by wishing his wife “Happy Birthday” on the Jumbotron.
• Nothing angers season ticket holders more than making them pay full price for meaningless preseason games. Up to half of the teams might address this by offering some form of variable pricing this season, says Lafemina. Taking a page out of American Express’ playbook, the league now refers to season ticket holders as “members,” he adds.
• The San Francisco 49ers are offering luxury suite customers a Yahoo-sponsored “Fantasy Football Lounge at the new Levi’s Stadium.”
• As part of the new “Jets Rewards” program, the club is offering season ticket, PSL and Club Seat holders the chance to watch a game from owner Woody Johnson’s suite at MetLife Stadium, says president Neil Glat. Or even travel with the team to an away game.
The Jets may eventually offer visits from their “Flight Crew” cheerleaders to fans in the stands, says Glat. But New York fans might not be as polite as Southerners. “Some people will be interested in the photo-op,” notes Glat. “Other people are going to be saying, ‘Down in front.’”