The Cincinnati Bengals are ranked highly in the NFL in many on the field statistics. In the stands, however, they rank dead last. This season, Paul Brown Stadium has been far and away the least attended stadium in the league.
Attendance overall in the NFL is down 1.1% as reported by Sports Business Weekly. That's not surprising given the NFL lockout and lingering fan disenchantment. The Bengals, however, have seen a 34% decrease in attendance, more than twice that of the teams with the next fewest fans.
The Miami Dolphins have experienced a 15.5% decline in football crazy South Florida and the Washington Redskins are 12% off last season's numbers. Both of these teams have rich football histories. The Redskins once rivaled Green Bay with a famed waiting list for season tickets at RFK Stadium.
Other teams are down as well. Both Tampa Bay and Jacksonville are lagging, prompting a Florida legislator to introduce legislation that would end NFL blackouts in cities where games aren't sold out. In Ohio, the Browns are also experiencing a downturn. They and St. Louis join the aforementioned teams as those operating at less than 90% capacity.
So what gives? Is it a poor product on the field? The lagging economy? Those are certainly factors in many cases. The economies in the cities mentioned above have been especially hard hit, no doubt affecting many folks who attended in the past, but through job loss or salary reduction don't have that disposable income any longer. These teams have also struggled on the field in recent years. The Bengals are the most recent playoff team among them, winning the AFC North in 2009.
Another possible factor is television. The quality and accessibility to broadcasts is better than ever before. With NFL Sunday Ticket and games being presented in HD, many fans are no doubt opting to forego a more expensive, sometimes unpleasant (weather conditions and fan behavior) stadium experience for the comfort of watching the game at home.
NFL television ratings aren't seeing any decrease at all. NPR reported in October that in the Fall sweeps period, 13 of the 15 highest rated shows on television were NFL games. The average NFL game attracts over 18 million viewers. Monday Night Football on ESPN is cable television's record setter, averaging 14 million viewers, more than twice that of AMC's Walking Dead, the record setting leader in cable drama.
So clearly, the lockout isn't turning fans away from the NFL product. It would appear that fans are just being turned away from stadiums, and in a more pronounced way, Paul Brown Stadium. Why the huge difference for Cincinnati?
The first and easiest answer is Mike Brown. Despite the team's onfield success this season, plenty of Cincinnatians still harbor ill feelings about Brown's management of the team over the past 20 years. This off season didn't do anything to help bridge that gap. Though the team had a great draft, that was overshadowed by the Carson Palmer stalemate and the controversy with Hamilton County over stadium renovation costs. Frankly there are many fans in Cincinnati who are unwilling to pay for anything that gives a dime to Mike Brown.
The Bengals have only sold out one game this season, against Pittsburgh, largely due to an influx of Steeler fans. Even last week's "Battle of Ohio" with the Browns, traditionally one of the more popular tickets, drew fewer than 50,000 fans to PBS which seats 65,515. And that's counting tickets purchased. The "eyeball" accounting of the stadium showed that the announced attendance was probably larger than the number of actual attendees.
So with a playoff contending team and three home dates remaining, two of which are against the fellow playoff teams, Houston and Baltimore, will there be any uptick in attendance? I'm guessing not in any significant way.
The situation in Cincinnati didn't happen overnight and won't be fixed that way. Fans have endured more than two decades worth of really bad football. When Marvin Lewis was hired, Carson Palmer drafted, and the team started to turn things around, fans returned. Between 2003 and 2010, the team sold out a club record 57 home games. Then came the 10 game losing streak and the off season where many fans threw up their hands in disgust.
That combined with a still fragile economy has created the current situation. It will take sustained improvement, both with the team and the local economy before fans start flocking back to PBS. That's unfortunate for this current group of Bengals who are playing some of the most inspired football we've ever seen in the Queen City. It also means that the NFL is unlikely to "flex" any of the remaining Bengals home games into prime time and may have an impact on how often or if they get prime time appearances next season. The NFL doesn't care too much for half empty stadiums in their marquee matchups.
That's unfortunate for the city. One of the prime benefits of having a "major league" sports franchise is the free publicity offered through the national exposure. You can't put a price tag on picturesque images of the skyline, or mouth watering images of Skyline being shown to millions of viewers.
What the Bengals are doing now is even more important than perhaps any other team. They're not just competing for a playoff spot, but trying to win back the hearts, and more importantly, the wallets of a disaffected fan base. If Andy Dalton and his teammates can do that, they may win a Lombardi Trophy one day. Winning back the fan base could be more difficult.
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