Wednesday October 20th, 2010

I have the odd sense that what was falsely feared more than half a century ago may be finally coming true now.

When television was new, sports team owners were intuitively afraid that if you put games out there for people to see for free they wouldn't pay to come out to see the game in person. The NFL was praised to the heavens for having the wisest, restricted TV policy.

But as time went on, the revised wisdom was that far from stunting the growth of live attendance, television whetted the appetite. You wanted to go out and be a part of what you'd gotten a taste of on TV. Cleaner stadiums, more comfortable seats, luxury suites, more convenient parking and public transit made it even more attractive to come on out! Not only did attendance increase tremendously, but owners also got paid more from the TV networks fighting over the chance to televise sports.

By now whole generations have grown up expecting every game to be at the beck and call of their clicker. And games televise so clear and gorgeous. Living color? TV clarity today is better than mere life -- it's heavenly. Football, which televises best, has seen NFL ratings go higher than ever.

So I think we're seeing the beginning of a sea change in custom and habit. That's probably accelerated too, because the owners -- this will come as a shock, I know -- have grown more greedy, and now even rich fans are balking at buying seats that have Tiffany price tags. How often do you see games on TV where the best seats are the ones that are empty? That's something altogether new.

But even more important, younger fans have been raised on TV and other electronic entertainment. These are people who play video games by themselves for fun, and who don't communicate so much face to face, but text on their cell phones. In the past, we thought that you had to be at the location to watch something "in person." To younger people today, what's "in person" is wherever their person is.

Besides, everybody has access to huge, brilliant high-definition TV. A Nielsen survey has shown that 21 percent more viewers watch sports events if they are broadcast in HD. I've talked to folks who've been on the sidelines at the huge new Cowboy stadium, and they say people down on the field nevertheless choose to look away from the actual game and watch on the monster video screens above.

Jerry Jones didn't build a stadium. He built the world's largest sports bar.

It seems to me that the appeal of traveling to pay to be an eyewitness is being edged out by the prospect of staying put and being comfortable. The roar of the crowd is so yesterday.

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