NFL enhancing the in-stadium experience

The NFL is taking a proactive approach to increasing the in-stadium fan experience, using on-site technology to give the in-house fans a viewing advantage.

Of all the provisions, pet projects and nuisance attachments that were attempted to be added to the Vikings stadium bill, the one that appeared to be the most ignorant and ill-informed was the provision that Vikings home games should be guaranteed to broadcast on free TV in the state of Minnesota.

No such guarantee could be met since the NFL controls regular-season television rights, not the Vikings, and some games appear on NFL Network. Additionally, over the course of the next 30 years, there is no guarantee that "free TV" will remain part of the media lexicon. Sound absurd? Consider this: When the Metrodome opened in 1982, there were four daily newspapers in the Twin Cities – The Minneapolis Star, The Minneapolis Tribune, The St. Paul Dispatch and The St. Paul Pioneer Press. The thought of home computers in nearly every house was still years away and the prospect of games being available on hand-held electronic devices seemed like NASA mythology. Thirty years later, newspapers are dying off and more people cull their news online rather than waiting to pick up a copy of the newspaper – which now seems to be more of a delivery device for extreme couponers.

It seemed as though the only way to potentially meet that ridiculous legislative request of guaranteeing free local TV coverage was that either the Vikings would have to sell out all their games or purchase any remaining tickets to assure there wouldn't be a local TV blackout.

However, the NFL might be making the move that will get rid of that potential problem. In a story in The Wall Street Journal, NFL officials have discussed significant changes to the current blackout policy, which requires all seats to be sold to make the game subject to local broadcasts.

The problem is based largely on technological advancements that have made games available on other forms of media other than free network television. With improvements in the distribution of the NFL product to fans not attending games, the result has been a decline in ticket sales each of the last five years. While the NFL is setting record numbers of fans watching games on the networks that carry them as well as soaring buy-rates for mobile device NFL programming packages, in-house attendance is down, which Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president of ventures and business operations, told the WSJ is more than a passing concern.

"The at-home experience has gotten better and cheaper, while the in-stadium experience feels like it hasn't," Grubman said. "That's a trend that we've got to do something about."

Blackouts are still rare – only 16 games last season (just 6 percent of the 256 regular-season games played) were blacked out. But some teams have had to get creative to beat the blackout rule. In Jacksonville, for example, large sections of the upper deck of the stadium are covered with team colored tarps to reduce the seating capacity of the stadium.

Under a multi-pronged proposal to address this problem, team owners adopted a resolution at their spring owners meeting to allow local games to avoid blackout provisions if they sell as few as 85 percent of the seats in the stadium. Each team can set its own capacity limits, at a figure at or above 85 percent, and to discourage teams from going on the low end of the new requirement, teams will be forced to share more of the revenue if their team exceeds its own ticket-sale benchmark. Some teams have been hesitant to add seats to existing stadiums out of fear that it could inadvertently create the potential for future blackouts.

Prior to the influx of "new media" into the NFL lexicon, many teams had long waiting lists for season tickets. As of June, 20 of the NFL's 32 teams still had season ticket packages available. WSJ pointed at the Indianapolis Colts as an example. In 2010, the Colts had a waiting list for seasons tickets of 16,000. In June 2012, they still had 1,900 season tickets available for purchase – a huge disparity.

In hopes of enhancing the in-stadium experience for fans, all 32 teams will have free Wi-Fi internet access available and the creation of smartphone apps will allow fans to listen to players wearing microphones on the field. Also, fans will be able to see the same replay angles that referees under the hood watch when there is an instant play challenge of a disputed call. Last year, the league required that teams have the NFL Red Zone channel in their stadiums, which tracks games league-wide and shows them when a team gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The Red Zone channel is available on many smartphones. In addition, after years of not allowing teams to attempt to increase crowd noise by prompting them on video boards to make more noise, the NFL has reversed itself on that policy.

The change in how the NFL has delivered the game to its fans has grown exponentially since the advent of the Internet and wireless devices that provide even more access to fans. The NFL is taking a proactive approach to addressing the new social media options available and, in the process, has made the old-school way of following the NFL just a few years ago seem like the Stone Age.

When the Vikings got their stadium bill passed this spring by the Minnesota Legislature, it seemed absurd that the state would make the requirement that the team assure that games played in the new stadium be available on free TV. It was a ridiculous request since no one can accurately predict how fans will watch or see games over the next 30 years. It would only seem natural that the current forms of state-of-the-art communication and transmission of NFL games will be woefully outdated 30 years from now.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here. Recommended Stories

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