Playoff attendance issues raise questions about NFL

How concerned should the league be about inability to draw fans to stadiums?
01/03/2014 2:30 PM ET
By Doug Williams

Andrew Luck and the Colts have been struggling to draw fans for the Wild Card weekend.(AP)
CBS Sports writer Matt Snyder tweeted something yesterday that really got me thinking. He simply said, "Imagine the 'baseball is dying' narratives if 75% of the LDS games didn't sell out."

Of course, Snyder is referring both to the fact that three out of four NFL playoff games this weekend were not sold out as of this morning, and also to the idea that some fans categorize baseball as a dying pastime. Many out there are confused as to how this could possibly happen to the big, bad National Football League. Here's what I think is going on:

First of all, baseball AND football are both dealing with the shrinking prices of home theaters and high definition television. You can buy a 32-inch HDTV on for under $200, which is less money than you'd pay for ONE good seat at most sporting events. Partner that with basic cable and you have the ability to watch sports in high definition whenever you want. Instant replay, insightful commentary and highlights of other games are all things that you have available to you on your own couch, but not at the game itself.

What separates baseball and football first and foremost is time of gameplay. NFL football has an average of less than 20 minutes of actual action during a game. If you've ever been to an NFL game, you know there is a LOT of sitting and waiting.

Also, the aforementioned sitting and waiting is usually done in the bitter cold at NFL games. In the three outdoor games this weekend, the average temperature will be around 23 degrees. Think commercial breaks are brutal on your couch? Imagine sitting next to a stranger on a cold seat, too cold to enjoy your favorite food or beverage.

In the very beginning and end of the season, baseball has to deal with cold weather, but not for long. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing. When they do, yes, I'm sure there are attendance issues. But that is a rare circumstance. In the NFL, though, the majority of the season is played during the cold weather months.

I love and have always loved football. I've frozen my tail off at many games and plan to do it again many times. Not to mention that football and cold weather just go together. It's the way the sport has always been played and it's why the sport is so unique. However, in Indianapolis, Green Bay and Cincinnati right now there are a lot of people who would rather watch their team play in the cold from their own couch than pay $300 a ticket to go witness it themselves. And by the way, those happen to be three blue-collar, football-loving cities. It's not about how much they love their teams or how excited they are for the games, it's about thousands of people asking themselves, "Is it worth it?"

Baseball is different. Because each MLB team has 146 more games than an NFL team, it's okay for the baseball fan to skip the occasional game. In football, if you miss just one game, you've missed almost 7 percent of your team's season. The NFL's small sample size results in gangs of shirtless men in the dead of winter celebrating touchdowns like it's the Super Bowl, even if their team is 0-12. What baseball does have, though, is warm weather and a more fan-friendly atmosphere. Going to a ballgame is about as pleasant a way to spend a day or night as I can imagine. It's extremely relaxing and fairly easy to go to a game for less than $50 a ticket. Fans are, for the most part, well behaved and civil. The game is slow, smart and easy to follow. And as I am writing this, I am beginning to forget whether I am describing baseball, or simply everything that the NFL is not.

Yes, we are surprised that it took so long to sell out playoff games in the NFL. Now that it's happened though, it's easy to understand why. If you're a diehard NFL fan, you may not understand why thousands of people chose not to go to a playoff game. But if you're not, it probably makes perfect sense. And that, to me, is why it's very possible that the NFL and MLB will eventually even out in popularity in the coming decades. Fringe fans -- the people who tag along at sporting events without particular interest in the outcome -- will view a nice spring day at the ballpark in the regular season as a more enticing activity than a crucial (but freezing) NFL playoff game. Not only because of the weather, but also because of fan comfort, commercial breaks and ticket prices.

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