#TBT: Why Do People Go to Live Events in the First Place?

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim.

ThrowbackThursdaysnewmallWhy Do People Go to Live Events in the First Place?

Last week, I talked about the NFL’s small problem with attendance. It’s a real issue, more for the potential future ramifications than today, but let’s keep it in context. This is a problem that, in other leagues, would go by a different name. For example, “fantastic, runaway success.” Heck, there are more teams at 100% attendance or higher than there are teams below 90% attendance, and 90% attendance is massively in the money.

But I understand why people overreact. It’s like finding out that the Hulk can be knocked down.

But some reactions are just too much and go badly in the wrong direction. Mike Freeman, a national sports columnist and an accomplished and entertaining writer, makes that same mistake in a piece from a few days ago, in which he predicts that in the next “decade or two” football will be played in a studio, with everyone watching from home. Here’s a bit more detail:

“The late Tex Schramm was president of the Dallas Cowboys for almost 30 years. Three decades ago, as televisions improved in quality and ridiculousness of size, Schramm became worried that the days of 70,000 fans packing NFL stadiums would end. Televisions, Schramm believed, would make attending games obsolete.”

Is your show more compelling than sitting on the couch being "busy"? Photo credit: “Entranced on the Sofa,” © 2012 @sage_solar, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Photo Credit: “Entranced on the Sofa,” © 2012 @sage_solar, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Your living room, the thesis goes, is so well-equipped with screens and devices and comfy chairs that you never need to go to an actual game. Why put on clothes and go through the inconvenience of moving through meatspace to get to the stadium when you can witness the events of the game without doing that? Hey, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agrees. Freeman quotes him as saying, “”We believe that it is important to get technology into our stadiums … We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure that we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums and create the same kind of technology.”

But hold on a second.

If the goal is to create the “same kind of environment” and the “same kind of technology” in the stadium as a person can have at home, then why go? (And by “technology” nowadays, everyone just means “stuff to fiddle with on your iPhone.” They’re not talking about hovering cameras or holographic 3D replays.)

If the goal of the NFL in improving the live experience is to make it more like the home experience, fans will truly ask why they should, therefore, pay to be there. What the NFL should be doing is figuring out ways to make the live experience truly unique and a truly premium version of seeing a football game. That starts, as I’ve said, with not making it feel like you’re in a remake of Warriors, or that you might need Snake Plissken’s help if things in your seating section take a wolfish turn. But that stuff is just ticket of entry stuff, the hygienic fixes the league has to put in.

When it comes to making a great live experience, the thing to remember is that yes, there are ways in which different technological tools make the experience a bit more convenient at the edges. Great screens to show replays are important. Maybe my holographic replay projection idea isn’t really all that bad. And sure, a camera 10 feet behind and 10 feet above a player running down the field returning a punt would be pretty exciting.

But ultimately, you see something live because it’s more exciting than it is at home, and a big part of that feeling is that there are other people there.

Imagine that.

College football takes good advantage of this. In many places, it’s a weekly meeting of a “tribe” of people, united for their team, their school, their state, whatever. There’s singing and chanting and cheers, and being part of it comes with your ticket. The fans of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders parade through the streets on the way to the game, setting themselves up for a great shared experience. And that’s MLS, which has far fewer fans overall and much shorter team traditions.

But why do all of that inconvenient walking and go to the actual stadium when you can see what happens in the game on your wall-sized TV?

Let’s pause and imagine a game broadcast from a studio, with perhaps a couple hundred people in attendance, like at a sitcom taping: “Brady, Jr. drops back … passes to Jarvis Manning … touchdown, London!”

And then? Silence. Well, not silence. There are a few dozen people applauding, but there’s one guy with a weird voice, so you can hear him pretty distinctly. A minute or so later, then you get the silence.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The mistake people make in this area is to think that people go to live events in order to find out what happens, to see the events of a game. Well, that’s true, but it misses the point. If you want to simply become aware of the events of the game, you can do that better at home. People go to the game because they want to be a witness to it. They want to be there when it happened. They want to have an unmediated experience of something special (hopefully) and, 10 years of selling millions of tickets to millions of people has taught me, they want to witness the game (or show, or whatever) with other people. They want to share that experience with other people and get the benefit of those other people making it special by being there. They want to talk about it afterward, possibly for the rest of their lives.

That doesn’t really happen very much when you watch something on TV. On TV, it’s just a show. An exciting show, perhaps, but still just a show. 60 Minutes is coming up immediately after football (except on the West Coast).

Watching sports on TV and watching sports live are two distinct ways of experiencing the product, both suited to different and valuable purposes, providing sports leagues with two ways of reaching customers and making money. They’re not the same, and they don’t really replace each other.

But here’s a thought: If it’s important to bring some of the elements of the in-home experience to the stadium, why isn’t it equally important to bring some of the in-stadium experience home, once the league gets the in-stadium experience fixed? What’s the equivalent of marching through town on the way to the stadium or doing team chants or standing up on third down? Those are the things that make the in-stadium experience many, many times more valuable (as reflected in the price people are willing to pay for it, by the way) than sitting at home “roast beef sandwich in hand” and watching the game on a screen.

Perhaps somebody should work on building that into the home-viewing experience.

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