As the new NFL season debuted, several media outlets ran stories about the challenges some NFL teams are encountering selling tickets. A surprising 22 games were blacked out in 2009, thanks in large part to a dreadful economy. And, the prognosis for 2010 is no better; attendance league-wide is expected to decrease for the third straight year. But it is too convenient to blame attendance woes solely on the economy. Many NFL fans have found that watching games in the comfort of their homes in high definition with access to replays and multiple games is a suitable substitute for attending the game in person. Throw in money saved on tickets, parking, and concessions as well as not missing dealing with traffic and drunken fans, and watching games on TV at home becomes a more attractive alternative.
Some sports industry observers wonder if the fact that football is a great sport for television will ultimately lead to a decline in game attendance. It will happen… if the NFL treats live games as a product. The reason is that products can be duplicated, at least the benefit products provide are relatively easy to copy. In this case, technology enhancements have made watching NFL games on TV an acceptable substitute for watching a game in person. Compelling arguments can be made that the TV product has some advantages such as different camera angles and replay capability, not to mention the convenience and cost savings mentioned previously.
Before the NFL is declared in a state of emergency, let us not forget that the brand is still very strong. It commands premium prices for tickets, sponsors, and media coverage. The key for the NFL to sustain its position as the premier sports property in the U.S. is to focus more on the experience offered by the live event. Steps have been taken already by addressing the problem of unruly fan behavior with a fan code of conduct. Further enhancements can be made by introducing more technology in stadiums to give fans options for consuming content beyond what is transpiring before their eyes. Sponsors can play a role, too, in adding value to the game experience. Interactive exhibits, games, and spaces give sponsors opportunities to have “quality time” with attendees.
Products can be mimicked to offer similar benefits at lower costs. Experiences can be unique encounters between brand and consumer that substitute products simply cannot match. This contrast does not apply just to the NFL. Whatever you sell, there are likely substitutes available. What can you do to move from selling a product to offering an experience? Remember the old adage: people don’t buy products, they buy benefits. Today, that adage can be modified to read “people don’t buy experiences, they seek meaning from the experiences they have.” Add meaning, and you add value.