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With television ratings on the rise and attendance flagging, NFL faces a business dilemma
According to Grubman, the NFL expects ticket sales to decline 1 to 2 percent this season after being down about 2.2 percent last season. Season ticket sales league-wide are down about 5 percent this season, Grubman said.
"I think the economy is really hurting our fans," Grubman said in a telephone interview. "We know it. We see it. We hear it. They tell us they're not leaving for good. They're just staying at home."
League-wide attendance declined from a record 17.3 million in 2007 to 17.1 million in 2008 to 16.7 million last season. NFL officials are projecting that this season's average attendance per game will be the league's lowest since 1998.
In response, the NFL has taken steps to improve the stadium experience. The league imposed a fan conduct policy in 2008 to try to make stadiums more family-friendly by curbing abusive language, obscene gestures, drunkenness and other forms of rude behavior in the stands. Among this season's changes, according to the league, is a modified noise policy that eases restrictions on video-board messages used by home teams to urge fans to cheer at certain points during games.
There also has been an effort to bring more technology into stadiums that enables fans to track not only the game they're watching, but other games and, potentially, the players on their fantasy football teams. Three teams, including the Redskins, have new HD video boards. The NFL RedZone Channel, with its live look-ins at games around the league when an offensive team is in scoring position, is available in all stadiums.
"If you're sitting there, it's a 10,000-inch plasma, much less a 50-inch plasma," Grubman said. "There's no reason for you not to get your tour around the NFL if you're in a stadium."
Teams are offering low-cost ticket options. The Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints increased some ticket prices this season, but still offer a season ticket at $25 per game. The Buccaneers offer some season tickets for $35 per game and $25 for children.
The average price of a general-seating ticket in the NFL last season was $74.99, according to Team Marketing Report, an independent newsletter that follows sports business issues. That would put the average season ticket at close to $750, for eight regular season and two pre-season games.
Meanwhile, a full-season subscription to DirectTV's "NFL Sunday Ticket" package, which allows a viewer to see every Sunday afternoon game every weekend (except games blacked out in that viewing area) costs $319.95, according to the satellite provider.
Last season, said Buccaneers spokesman Jonathan Grella, Tampa Bay and other organizations helped prevent blackouts by purchasing unsold tickets, but can't do that indefinitely. The NFL sometimes grants ticket-selling extensions to teams that are close to sellouts and has eased reastrictions on the 17,000 free tickets each team is allowed to distribute to youth groups, military personnel and others.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to Goodell recently, urging the commissioner to consider changing the NFL's blackout policy.
"While I understand the need for the league to sell tickets and maintain an attractive television product, NFL blackout policies should be revisited as our nation faces the worst economic crisis in generations," Brown wrote.
Grubman said the league does not intend to change the policy.
"We think the blackout policy protects the league, our partners and the long-term viability of the model," Grubman said.