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NFL in scramble mode in what could be a losing battle to keep fans filling its stadiums

by | National NFL Insider
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How will the NFL keep the crowds, like this one in New Orleans, coming back for more? (Getty Images)  
How will the NFL keep the crowds, like this one in New Orleans, coming back for more? (Getty Images)  

The year was 1980, and one of the great NFL visionaries saw the future of the sport. He saw, even then, how technology could eventually lead to the emptying of stadiums for the luxury of living rooms.

The late Tex Schramm was president of the Dallas Cowboys for almost 30 years. Three decades ago, as televisions improved in quality and ridiculousness of size, Schramm became worried that the days of 70,000 fans packing NFL stadiums would end. Televisions, Schramm believed, would make attending games obsolete.

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In what was a remarkably prophetic moment in NFL history, Schramm gave a 1980 interview to the Associated Press, an interview that remains relevant now. He describes watching a game in the living room of Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and was struck by the big-screen TV and number of channels available. Schramm envisioned a scenario where games were played in a television studio, not in a stadium, in front of limited number of fans and journalists. And at home, fans placed bets by pressing a series of buttons with fees charged to their credit cards. They could instantly switch to different games and focus on, say, the defensive backfield alone. All with the touch of a button. Sound familiar?

Remember, Schramm was saying this in the early 1980s, when cable television was still in its infancy, and 30 years later, most of those predictions came true. The one Schramm-ism, that technology will lead to the end of watching games in stadiums, could also become accurate.

The NFL remains worried -- no, scared is the word -- this is quickly becoming the case.

Several team executives said one of the motives behind the league's series of initiatives to make watching games in stadiums better for fans is the growing fear that technology at home will make watching games in stadiums obsolete. And if that happens, all of that revenue, in the billions of dollars, could dry up.

"Our business is very competitive," Packers president Mark Murphy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "We're competing with ourselves, in a sense, because TV is so good, and we want to make sure the experience in the stadium is unique. It really focuses on technology."

Tex Schramm helped bring technological innovations like referees' microphones, play clocks and instant replay into the NFL. (Getty Images)  
Tex Schramm helped bring technological innovations like referees' microphones, play clocks and instant replay into the NFL. (Getty Images)  
"We believe that it is important to get technology into our stadiums," commissioner Roger Goodell said recently. "We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure that we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums and create the same kind of technology."

Goodell has said he wants wireless in all stadiums for mobile devices so fans can stay in touch with news across the league during games. Other initiatives include better concessions and bigger scoreboards.

What the NFL is doing is smart. It makes total sense. It also won't stop the inevitable. Technology is getting so good that one day (very soon) stadiums will be vastly less populated and the fan experience will mostly be limited to watching the game in HD, on a couch, roast beef sandwich in hand, no line for the bathroom, no traffic, no huge fees for tickets or parking. In other words, technology and comfort will actually trump the excitement of being at a game.

One executive said the league's relaxing of the blackout rule was a sign that the NFL sees the inevitable. "If you can't beat 'em," the person said, "join 'em."

The route football is taking, to me, has a predictable end. The technology will only get better, and what makes things worse for the NFL is that it's only a matter of time before tablets get better as well. One day you'll be able to carry a game into the bathroom on an HD tablet, with game paused, then after the bathroom, kiss your girlfriend or boyfriend or both, answer the doorbell, get the nachos, cool the beer, then resume the game at your own leisure.

All happening in the palm of your hand. Can't do that in a stadium.

So, judging by the NFL's strategy, it looks like Schramm might be right. And if that's so, it's only a matter of time until we see the end of stadium football.

Not 50 years from now, but maybe within a decade or two.

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