The Miami Dolphins have a plan for hosting fans at games as soon as September.
There won’t be as many of them – around 15,000 allowed into the 65,000-seater Hard Rock Stadium. They’ll be given entry times, which means ticket holders will have to plan their arrival like a military manoeuvre. They’ll have to wear masks.
They’ll have to order their hot dogs online. Once the game ends, they’ll have to wait their turn to leave so that, as Dolphins chief executive Tom Garfinkel put it, “people aren’t all filing out at the same time in a herd.”
Do you know how long it’ll take to get 15,000 people out of a room if they have to leave one row at a time? Hours.
Where does the bathroom fit in this model? One person in there at a time? Is someone going to disinfect the commode between uses? Or does everyone have to bring their own bucket?
This new vision for live entertainment is not just unworkable. It also sounds profoundly unentertaining. It’s the equivalent of paying to go back and forth through airport security for six hours.
Moreso than any of its competitors, the NFL doesn’t need fans in attendance to make its economics work. The league’s TV contracts and marketing deals cover the bills and more. Whatever dip in revenue does occur will be passed on to the players. As long as there is football, the people who own the clubs will continue to get rich.
But the NFL remains tied to the sports fans model because, well, because that’s how it’s always been done. Now we’re going to try it the other way.
Before the world flipped on its head in March, one of the favourite buzzwords of business-side sports executives was “experience.” You no longer watched a game. You experience a holistic amusement product that has more in common with Disney World than the local rink.
You don’t just buy tickets any more. You buy tickets in the all-you-can-eat section. You play interactive games in the concourse. You sign up for a new credit card. You drink craft beer. You buy a monogrammed jersey via in-arena app and have it delivered to your seat.
Most people are direct-marketed at all day long for free. Sports attendees pay for the privilege.
It is no longer enough to sell tickets and beer and be happy with the return. The arena costs too much and needs to be rebuilt every 25 years, or so we are constantly told.
The real gate money is made via private boxes and plush courtside thrones. Everyone else is just there to balance out the noise levels. Even then, the cost of any sort of seat has become prohibitive for large swaths of the population.
Going to a game is no longer a every-once-in-a-while highlight of most childhoods. It has become a status marker reserved for elites. If you can get tickets to a Leafs or Raptors playoff game, people will know that you know people. You’re a somebody. There is more pleasure in telling friends you went to the game than actually going to the game.
That must be the reason people are willing to pay unholy amounts to watch sports the inferior way.
In person, you get the shock and awe. The scale of the production, the size of the building, the number of people, the sound they make. Those are thrilling. But then the game starts.
You often can’t see exactly what’s happening. When something does happen, you aren’t exactly sure what it was. You were too busy strapping on a popcorn feedbag.
There is a fun game I like to play in the press box called Who’s On Their Phone?. By the middle of the second period or the top of the sixth inning, just about everyone.
This is one of the ironies of our age – that people pay to see the game live so that they can watch it on a TV that’s a lot smaller than the one they have at home. Or maybe they’re texting friends to let them know they’re at the game they’re not watching.
Paradoxically, sports is more immersive when viewed from your couch. You have announcers telling you what’s happening. There are replays and reminders of what’s what and who’s who. There’s a fridge nearby and no lineups for the toilet.
TV is the real “experience” of sports because it provides more than what your eyes can see from a couple of hundred feet away.
That experience is so much better now than it was 20 years ago that the two cannot be compared. The affordable home theatre changed everything.
In another 20 years, one assumes we’ll be wearing virtual-reality goggles and watching the football game from the perspective of the quarterback or something. Why would you pick a seat in the ionosphere at the top of the stadium over that?
The key advantage of being there is community. There is something magical about watching sports in a crowd when the game matters and everyone is into it.
But last year’s Raptors championship run showed that community and atmosphere can be replicated anywhere. Night after night, the real buzz at Scotiabank Arena was happening outside it, in the Jurassic Park fan zone. Lining up for hours to get in became a badge of honour greater than scoring tickets from your mom’s law firm.
Years from now, a generation of Canadian kids will tell stories about “being there” when Kawhi made The Shot. They just didn’t happen to be inside the building, or even in the city.
Despite the best intentions of the Dolphins and others, we’ll be trying a version of that outside-but-still-in idea for the next little while. We have no idea when the pandemic will end. We continue to operate on the principle that it is finite and all we have to do is tough it through a few hard months. That’s not at all certain. We could be at this, or some variation of it, for years.
If so, the traditional model of sports viewing is over.
Two trends would then accelerate. One is that seeing the game live becomes something accessible only to the rich. The easiest way to reduce your audience to a fifth of what it once was is charging five times as much. All of a sudden, everyone gets the private-box experience.
The other is that the rest of us – the great unwashed – get used to the idea that sports are purely virtual. All of us know a fan who lives and dies with Arsenal or Juventus, and has never been to London or Turin. Is a Montreal hockey fan any less so if he or she has never been to a Canadiens game? Once, you’d have said yes. But not any more.
If things continue in this direction long enough, teams will reconsider how they mount their spectacles. They may no longer need a billion-dollar headquarters that is obsolete shortly after it’s finished. Instead, they can build a cheap soundstage, cater everything about it to broadcast considerations and computer-generate the atmosphere. Maybe they’ll invite a few hundred fat cats to watch the show’s recording for obnoxious amounts of money.
Likely? Not yet. Possible? Absolutely. Everything’s on the table now.
If the pandemic goes on long enough, it will be the end of all sorts of things we’re used to. Which means we can begin whatever comes next.