The NFL Stadium Experience: Can’t Compete With My Couch

Last Friday night’s Illinois high school playoff football schedule offered some compelling matchups. I thought about going to one of the games to soak up the stratospheric energy levels and see a highly competitive sports product. But I didn’t go. Instead, I hooked up my laptop to my big-screen television and scheduled myself to stay at home to watch the game on the Cube, which is the Internet live feed site televising select local high school football games. To be honest, I was pretty excited for my prospects. The weather had turned Chicago-wintry, my refrigerator is only steps from my couch, I could channel flip to my heart’s content, I ordered in from my favorite Thai restaurant, and my girlfriend even came over to keep me warm throughout. I was truly content. Until, that is, the game started and I realized I had vastly over-relied on the Cube to watch the game. The picture quality was poor, the single camera unsatisfactory, and the feed kept freezing up as the data flow needed constant buffering. I was completely frustrated and wished I had gone to a game to actually see it. Except that the cable channel-flipping, the girlfriend, the refridgerator, the access to other Internet sites, and the line-free bathroom all came through for me nicely. I hold out hope for improved watchability over the Internet in the future, but until then I’m just going to dress to the weather to catch a high school game. I don’t really have a good choice if I want to see the game.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell fears for my Cubist discontent. While trying to convince Georgian taxpayers to pony up for a new Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Goddell indicated that the biggest problem facing the NFL is television’s vastly improved viewing abilities. High-Definition, big-screens, and extraordinary source content allow simultaneous, interactive, multi-screen viewing of premium NFL content like regularly scheduled games, ESPN, the NFL channel, Sunday Direct Ticket, the Red Zone, dedicated-channel Sports Packages, EASPORTS-style gaming, and Internet fantasy stats and betting sites. The future for high-cost stadiums is clearly threatened by the far more comfortable, controlled, qualitative and customized environments elsewhere. At some point, I infer from Goddell’s comments (and my personal experience), a live in-stadium experience will fail to compete with my couch. I realize this is not be the biggest issue facing the NFL right now, but it should be treated as if it were.

The NFL spectator experience is an at-home game. Sure, I could pay an incredibly high ticket price to sit with 70,000+ of my closest friends in potentially unfavorable seasonal conditions (note: I live in Chicago) and pay through the nose for the priviledge to park, eat and drink, not to mention walk the long walk to stand in line to use a urinal, and – in denial of all reason, experience and probability – hope that at game’s end I witnessed something that made the whole thing worthwhile. Or I could deck out the visual horizon from my couch to have it all, exactly as I want it to be, for far less than the cost of a season ticket for a semi-favorable seat with decent sightlines. Technology and media content is, comparatively speaking, cheap and excellent; they provide the ultimate NFL experience and value proposition.

I’m a super fan, mind you. But when I’m at a game and I’m feeling anxious for my circumstances, it’s almost certain that I’m wishing I were watching the game elsewhere. The anxiety is acute during breaks in play for a television timeout, and I actually feel physical pain when a call on the field is challenged and referred to the booth for a televised replay, during which my eyes are trained on the Jumbotron and the many camera angles being presented to review the challenged play; all I’m thinking about is that the NFL has totally given itself over to the power and performance of television except in one respect – the need to put my ass in a stadium seat as the sine qua non of local revenue sources. My ass, my wallet, my stomach, and my eyeballs in an engineered-for-maximum-discomfort stadium seat. The stadium is the worst of all places to experience the game, with the sole (and oft-repeated) exception of being able to “see the entire field and the development of the play.” That big picture is not worth quite as much as it costs. A big tipping point was when a nearby fan explained, while shivvering and wet on a rainy day in early December at Soldier Field, that he watched the game streaming on his teeny tiny iPhone screen so as to have the best of both worlds. I refer to him as the village idiot of the modern spectating age. But then again, I get to be with 70,000+ of my closest friends, though many of whom are not exactly on their best behavior. I’ve been way too close to too many behaviors that warrant a cell phone call for intervention, but why? After all, the worst behavior was my decision to put myself in the position of experiencing the bad behavior of others. I mean, really, who’s the bigger idiot?

Football is a great game, maybe the best game. It commands and has our attention. But the game is far more enjoyable from a couch or a sports bar than it is at the stadium. It’s too expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable and limiting of an experience when I can have it all, including authenticity, elsewhere.

Did I mention the girlfriend? I don’t care how great the new Georgia Dome will be, it won’t compete.