In recent days there's been some attention paid to the fact that NFL attendance numbers are the lowest they've been since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002. That year, 16,883,310 attended a total of 256 games. In 2011, 16,562,706 fans attended the same number of games. Average attendance at each game was 64,698 which is the lowest average since 2002. Are we seeing real evidence that the NFL has peaked in popularity, or are there other reasons for why these numbers have dropped?
I live in Denver where the Broncos have seen their share of up and down seasons over the past decade. Denver has franchises from the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL that compete for fans. Everyone who lives here knows that this is an NFL town, and the Broncos are typically sold-out. The Broncos have filled 99% of capacity in 2011, 98.5% in 2010, and 98.7% in 2009. Those are outstanding numbers despite the fact that the Broncos had a 20-28 record over those three years. They've managed to sell out even though their stadium capacity is the sixth-largest in the NFL. Credit Tim Tebow for putting butts in the seats over the past few years, with Peyton Manning sure to continue that trend going forward.
So if Denver, with their poor results on the field and large stadium, are able to fill their stadium to 99% capacity, why can't everyone else? Isn't this America's most popular sport by far? There were nine NFL teams that filled their stadium to 100% capacity or more in 2011. They were the Dallas Cowboys (106%), Indianapolis Colts (102.9%), Philadelphia Eagles (102.3%), Chicago Bears (101%), Houston Texans (100.6%), Baltimore Ravens (100.3%) , New Orleans Saints (100.1%), Tennessee Titans (100%), and the New England Patriots (100%).
Two things that jump out about that list. Most of those teams have been solid winners for years (Indianapolis). Four of those teams (Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, New England) won their divisions in 2011. The rest are just solid football-crazy towns who love their teams (Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville).
Now let's look at the teams at the bottom of the attendance figures. Starting at the bottom (32nd) and working up we have the Cincinnati Bengals (75.2% capacity), Miami Dolphins (81%), Washington Redskins (83.9%), Buffalo Bills (85.8%), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (86.2%), St. Louis Rams (86.3%), and the Cleveland Browns (90%), San Diego Chargers (91.7%), and the Jacksonville Jaguars (92.8%). Five of these teams finished last in their division in 2011 (St. Louis, Washington, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay). I can understand why the fans stayed away in those cities.
For me, I think the biggest reasons why the NFL attendance numbers are down is because there's been certain franchises that have consistently under-performed for too long and fans are disappointed with the ownership and management of their teams. Miami, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Cleveland are prime examples of locations where the fans have stayed home to protest what's happening with their teams. The NFL is working on ways to enhance the game day experience in the stadium, but ultimately they need to improve the product on the field for their worst teams. I know my Broncos are going to field an exciting team in Denver with Peyton Manning. However, if I'm a Miami Dolphins fan, adding Wifi to the stadium is not going to distract me from the fact that my team stinks.
Julie is a featured NFL contributor for the Yahoo Contributor Network. A crazy fanatical football fan, she began rooting for the Broncos upon moving to Denver in 2001.