You read a headline like “Buccaneers resort to giving tickets away for free,” and your first thought is probably something like, Man, those tickets are still overpriced. And maybe they are! But Tampa Bay’s desperation move to throw open the gates and fill up Raymond James Stadium with freeloaders might — we stress, might — be a brilliant move.
Sure, it looks like a last-gasp beg, a Hail Mary to the citizens of Tampa and St. Pete to please, please come support these pewter-and-orange interception-slinging fools, but let’s roll past that and dig a little deeper. The key here is the difference between football right in front of you and football on your TV.
Why football at home beats football in a stadium
The NFL’s always selling football, but it sells the product in very different ways. Football on TV in the comfort of your own home is a delight — you’re on your couch with plenty of legroom, you can flip between games, you can check your fantasy scores as the day rolls on, and you’ve got a guaranteed Wi-Fi connection and a private bathroom.
Football in a stadium, on the other hand, is a costly gamble. Hey, maybe you’ll spend the day cheering with your fellow fans as Your Team vanquishes their Dastardly Opponent, the crowd rising as one in a swell of rousing camaraderie. Or, more likely if you’re a Bucs fan, you’ll pay way too much for tickets/parking/food, watching your team stumble its way between the twenties while some sunburnt lout from Plant City cusses/fights/vomits — sometimes all at once — in the seats behind you.
So while the product of football basically sells itself for millions of fans every weekend, the product of live football is a tougher go. Why pay extra for a worse experience than you’d have at home? Why not plow what you’d spend on season tickets into a tricked-out home theater so you could watch Jameis Winston set himself on fire in 4K Ultra HD?
How do you get fans to the stadium?
That’s where the Bucs’ giveaway comes in. Certainly, this smacks of desperation — when you’re getting outdrawn in your own stadium by the local university, well, that’s pretty damn embarrassing. But this get-butts-in-seats maneuver could pay off over the longer term, provided the Bucs can follow through.
Right now, the lowest-priced tickets for Sunday’s Carolina game — aside from the free ones, of course — are $60 for upper-level locations. Sixty freaking bucks! For Tampa Bay! Who’s paying that? The NFL’s live experience doesn’t have the cachet it once had, and the idea of dropping five Benjamins for a family of four to get food and souvenirs is laughable. A Tampa Bay-Carolina game in December isn’t like, say, a flight at Thanksgiving — even though there’s a finite number of seats, you can’t jack up the price the closer you get to kickoff and expect them to get sold.
Promoters of live events will tell you that the trickiest part of planning shows/concerts/games from an attendance perspective is the impact of last-minute ticket sales. In 2018, plenty of fans are willing to wait until the last minute and then tap BUY on their ticket app when the price drops into the single digits as the national anthem is playing. It’s a good play for fans, but it’s hell on a team waiting on walkups. (No, this is not to suggest you should feel sorry for Tampa Bay.)
So what are NFL teams to do when the ground’s shifting under their feet? The Tampa Bay situation is a gargantuan, five-story-high, end-zone Jumbotron sign that NFL teams — at least those in soft markets — will need to get more creative with their ticket deals by cutting prices and offering trinkets, meet-n-greets with the backup center, “on-field experiences,” whatever. To get fans into the seats, you’ve got to do more than meet them halfway … you’ve got to recognize that they’ve got the power now.
Granted, the logistics of ticket pricing for teams are tricky business; budgets for everything from player salaries to debt service on stadiums will cascade when you start removing revenue sources. (Again, though: don’t feel sorry for NFL teams.) But if a team’s looking to simply fill seats, this is how you do it: cut ticket prices with the goal of just getting fans into the stadium. And hey, why not soak the luxury-box contingent for a few extra bucks to make up the difference?
Once you get fans in the door, there are opportunities aplenty to separate them from their cash. The Atlanta Falcons have won plenty of praise for their ultra-cheap Cokes and hot dogs, but take it from someone who’s been there — the $3 dogs are a temptation, but when you get there, you’ll dig a little deeper for a better chicken sandwich.
To start down that road, though, you’ve got to get fans off their couches. And relying on the mystique of the NFL — which now means paying to watch Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick battle for the right to shoot themselves in the foot — isn’t going to cut it anymore. For now, free tickets are just the cost of doing business.
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