NFL Fans Forgo Playoff Tickets, Prefer the Couch Packers, Colts, Bengals Struggle to Sell Seats Despite Soaring TV Ratings
The NFL enters the first round of playoff games this weekend with soaring television ratings, billions of dollars in network TV contracts in their pocket and a nation of football fans who can't wait to hop on their couch and watch a weekend of games.
The league has never been a more popular viewing option. There's just one problem: Fewer people want to actually attend the games.
Paul Vigna and Geoff Foster discuss why NFL teams are having trouble selling Wild Card weekend playoff tickets.
In the latest evidence that the sports in-home viewing experience has possibly trumped the in-stadium one, ticket sales were slow for the first week of the National Football League's marquee stretch of games.
Three teams hosting games this weekend asked the league for extensions to sell more tickets for the games to avoid a television blackout in local markets, which is imposed by NFL policy if a game isn't sold out. The teams, the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, needed large corporate assistance to ensure the sellouts.
"This wasn't just financial, this was emotional. This game needed to be on TV for the people of Wisconsin," said Jay Zollar, the general manager of WLUK, a Fox affiliate in Green Bay, Wis. His station, along with two other Fox affiliates in Wisconsin, as well as three local businesses, decided on Thursday to purchase any remaining tickets.
Meanwhile, Meijer Inc., a grocery store chain based in Grand Rapids, Mich., bought 1,200 Colts tickets for their matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, which will be distributed to military families. A Colts executive said the average price of those tickets was roughly $100.
In Cincinnati, retailer Kroger Co. as well as Procter & Gamble Co. bought large blocks of tickets to help the Bengals avoid a blackout for their game against the San Diego Chargers. The Bengals declined to comment.
The last NFL playoff game to be blacked out was in January 2002 when the Miami Dolphins hosted the Baltimore Ravens.
Former Oakland Raiders Chief Executive Amy Trask, now an analyst for CBS, said the struggle to sell tickets is due in part to fans increasingly wanting to avoid traffic, parking prices, ticket costs and lack of cellphone service. The in-home experience, she noted, which can now include multiple-screen football viewing, has become much more desirable. She also said there is typically more "tightened spending so soon after the holidays."
"Really the attention should be focused on what can make the in-stadium experience more attractive so people want to come," Ms. Trask said.
The league has tried in recent years. Teams have unveiled Wi-Fi in stadiums and this year, mandated cameras in locker rooms that would become content available only to those
The Packers' struggle to move their seats for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers comes as a shock to nearly all in the NFL. Temperatures are expected to hover around zero degrees, though that has hardly stopped the Packer faithful from buying tickets before. The team boasts a six-figure season ticket waiting list and a 319-game sellout streak.
"You are talking about what had appeared to be the most passionate fan base of all," said Andrew Brandt, a former Packers vice president. "I didn't think the blackout issue would be an issue in Green Bay at all."
Mr. Brandt chalked up the slow ticket sales to a confluence of the weather and the fact that ticket requests were sent out earlier in the year when it appeared the Packers wouldn't make the playoffs.
Larry Hall, vice president of ticket operations and guest services for the Colts, said the uncertainty of when the games would be played contributed to fans waiting to buy tickets. The uncertainty is a byproduct of the NFL backloading the schedule in recent years to put crucial division games in the last week of the season, which ensures teams won't have a clear playoff picture heading into the final weeks.
"The NFL has achieved what it desired, with so much still at stake in the 17th week of the season," said Mr. Hall. "But not knowing the day, date and time of the game is difficult whether you're a season-ticket holder or a single-ticket buyer. Our team won our last home game. If two other teams had lost, we would have had a 'bye' this week. That's important to know." A "bye" refers to an off week, meaning the team could have skipped the first round of games.
The NFL declined to comment.
Mr. Hall said that a batch of Colts' tickets are also packaged as group tickets, for sale to corporate outings, social clubs, church groups or other gatherings of at least 20 people. He said that those groups usually take longer to organize a trip to the game, particularly during the holiday season when many people are on vacation.
The threat of blackouts comes at a time when the idea of the rule itself is under fire. Last month, the FCC's five commissioners voted unanimously to issue a proposal that would undo the ban. The NFL said they would fight any attempt to lift the rule.
—Stu Woo contributed to this article.