Downsize the NFL?

Maybe after the Super Bowl

The Chargers will be stuck in this foster home until the DNA results from The Maury Povich Show come back and prove that Los Angeles Stadium is their new daddy.
  • The Chargers will be stuck in this foster home until the DNA results from The Maury Povich Show come back and prove that Los Angeles Stadium is their new daddy.

Here’s a fun fact: the Los Angeles Chargers might sell out some games in 2017. They are likely to pull off this seemingly impossible feat by aiming small — as in 30,000 fans small. That’s the capacity of the StubHub Center, the soccer venue that will play host to the bastard child of the NFL that no city wants to claim as their offspring. The Chargers will be stuck in this foster home until the DNA results from The Maury Povich Show come back and prove that Los Angeles Stadium is their new daddy.

So that theory is a bit far-fetched — “How on Earth could the Chargers sell out a stadium?” Well, a good start is to cut the size of the stadium in half. Actually, it’s less than half since Qualcomm Stadium clocks in at 70,561 seats. Also of note, the Chargers didn’t need 70,000 seats last year. The team averaged 57,000 fans per game in 2016, and according to the website Pro Football Reference, they just eked past the Raiders to take the trophy for worst overall home-game attendance with a total of 456,197. They were also the only team in the NFL, when home and away game attendance is combined, to not break one million.

So maybe downsizing is a good plan. The proposed East Village stadium was going to suffer some shrinkage. It was planned to be 61,500 seats with the ability to expand (maybe once or twice in its lifetime) to 72,000 if the city were to host a Super Bowl. The league has, surprisingly, been trending toward smaller stadiums as a means to protect markets from TV blackouts. The Raiders proposed a 56,500-seat stadium in Oakland back in 2013 that was likely a lock to ensure sell-outs. Since NFL owners share both ticket and TV revenues, balancing ticket sales with TV exposure is a big deal.

Besides those two factors, if the NFL learned anything from the Chargers’ recent battle with the City of San Diego, it’s that stonewalling expensive stadium projects may become a nationwide trend. The days of cities throwing down hundreds of millions of dollars for no NFL ticket or TV revenue on their end might be coming to an end. If so, the league needs a plan B, and the Chargers playing at the StubHub Center may be a hint as to where they are heading.

If you talked to anyone who saw Paul McCartney perform at Petco Park in 2014, they probably regarded it as a memorable show. If you talked to anyone who saw Paul McCartney play at Pappy & Harriet’s (a tiny BBQ joint near Joshua Tree) this past October, they likely verbally harassed you for an hour about how life-altering it was. The NFL may be inching toward a Pappy & Harriet’s model. The Chargers are likely to market this stadium as offering something along the lines of “an unbelievable opportunity to catch top-tier NFL gameplay in an intimate stadium where every seat places you next to the action!” The bad news, for fans, is that these seats aren’t going to go for Los Angeles Galaxy rates. Don’t be surprised if tickets for the 2017 Chargers home games are the most expensive in the NFL. The premium views will almost certainly come with a premium price.

Premium prices that disgruntled San Diego fans and lackadaisical L.A. fans alike may be unwilling to pay. So don’t be surprised if the Chargers’ home schedule is stacked with the likes of Green Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Denver — the teams with the traveling fans. Imagine the oogly-eyes of a hardcore Cowboys fan when he finds out that he can come visit SoCal and check out a game practically next to the field instead of watching it on the Jumbotron in the nosebleeds like he is used to.

So it will be a gamble for the NFL, but a worthy experiment. The StubHub Center stadium cost $87 million to build, so if the Chargers pull a nice profit there, owners may start to rethink their grandiose stadium plans — especially if that money is going to be coming out of their pocket. One could envision an NFL with maybe four mega-stadiums (80,000–100,000 capacity) that would rotate Super Bowls, while the rest of the teams downsized and raised prices. For fans, going to games would likely become much more of a special occasion — unless you’re fortunate enough to be filthy, stinking rich. As for the owners, they have arranged it so they remain filthy, stinking rich either way.

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Two things about this article. While the Chargers finished (just barely) above the Raiders in attendance per game, the more telling stat was percentage of available seats sold, which the Chargers were dead last. Also, TV blackouts are a thing of the past in the NFL.

The trend definitely seems to be that the NFL will keep renewing the suspension of blackout enforcement. They do this year by year, so you never know though. They apparently make about two thirds of their money via TV, so it seems kind of crazy at this point to not televise games. It's also of note that when a bar signs up for the NFL package they pay a rate based on their maximum capacity. So, basically, the NFL gets to charge per-potential person watching every game in sports bars coast to coast. That's an even better deal than stadiums offer since seats can go unsold. This fight between cities and the NFL will be interesting to watch though. The league probably thinks that gigantic, flashy stadiums are great as long as somebody else is paying the majority of the tab, while realizing they can downsize and still collect the same revenue without having to pay for them themselves. On a related note, one very telling moment was a couple years back when I was listening to the Dan Patrick Show. The question of the day was about where you preferred to watch a game, at home/at a bar or live at the stadium. Something like 80% who responded said at home or a bar. I thought that was a pretty amazing result, especially since it's such a sports-specific radio show. You expect a result like this on NPR. The masses may be moving away from live NFL in general.

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