It’s the question marketers for sports teams have been puzzling about most in recent years:
How do you convince a generation raised by smartphones to have an attention span of 140 characters to sit still for three hours to watch a live sporting event?
The answer — or at least part of it — is to take away their seats and tell them they don’t have to sit at all.
Fans attending Thursday night’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers pre-season game at Investors Group Field were greeted with a new sight this season: The team has ripped out five rows of seats at the top of four sections in the stadium’s north end zone and erected signs promising "Viewing Deck Coming Soon."
Those four viewing decks will join four other new viewing decks the team installed elsewhere on the main concourse over the winter that were fully operational Thursday.
Why would the Bombers rip out more than 800 perfectly good seats from a stadium that's barely four years old and replace them with standing room only?
"There are some people who just want to socialize at games... That’s what the new fan wants in entertainment," Bombers CEO Wade Miller told me Friday morning.
Indeed, it’s all part of the same reason Miller installed five phone-charging stations a couple years ago: because younger people don’t watch sporting events the same way we all used to and teams in desperate need of their dollars will either change with the times or be left with nothing but people with grey hair in the stands (more on that in a moment).
Right now, the unfinished viewing decks in the north end zone consist of nothing more than concrete risers where the seats used to be. The team expects to have railings installed in time for fans to take a stand at the July 7 home-opener.
The eight viewing decks are a solution to a couple of problems that have been self-evident since IGF opened in 2013:
With seating for more than 33,000, the stadium is overbuilt for the Bombers' needs. As well, the concourse generally, but in particular near the Rum Hut in the stadium’s north end, is not nearly big enough to accommodate the crush of fans who would rather stand and socialize during games.
It’s all an acknowledgment of the reality that standing room-only spaces that were once the cheapest and least desirable way to watch a game are now the preferred option for many in a demographic that treats the event more like a social where you meet and mingle with friends than a movie where you’re expected to take your seat and keep it until the final credits run.
Brand-new Mosaic Stadium in Regina has gone all-in on the idea, sectioning off terraces in one end zone that are strictly standing room-only, with capacity for about 1,500.
Think about that for a second: roughly five per cent of the seats in the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ new stadium aren’t seats at all, but just places where people can hang out. If you’d pitched that idea a decade ago — when all the emphasis in stadium building was on creature comforts such as bigger, cushier seats with leather cushions, cherry-wood armrests and cupholders, you’d have been laughed at.
But today, just about every new stadium in baseball and football has sectioned off places to stand for fans who have tickets for a designated seat but in many cases never bother to find it, much less sit in it.
The Bombers, unfortunately, don’t have a stadium built for that reality, as anyone who has ever tried to make their way through the crush of people on the IGF concourses during a game can attest.
If they were building that stadium again today, the concourses would be several metres wider. And, also, surround a playing field built at a different location.
But full credit to the club’s current management — who, it’s worth remembering, had nothing to do with the myriad flaws in the original stadium design; they’re at least trying to be creative in finding ways to make a game-day experience that works for everyone.
In addition to new viewing decks, the club is also putting the finishing touches on a new Bombers Bar Network that will provide a free shuttle service for fans on game nights from Gate 2 to designated bars and restaurants at Kenaston and McGillivray, downtown, St. Vital and Transcona. Oh, and there’s also cheaper concession prices this season, with food items now starting at $4 (hot dog, chicken tenders or a perogy-and-kielbasa combo on a stick) and soft drinks at $2.50.
Not that the Bombers had much choice in all this. Like every professional sport in North America, fan bases for football are aging dramatically and the race is on to find some way, any way, to convince a new generation raised on streaming on demand to devote its discretionary spending to watching sports that often still play out painfully analogue in this lightning-quick digital age.
What teams have been doing so far doesn’t seem to be working. According to a study by New York-based marketing agency Magna Global published in the Sports Business Daily last week, the median age of the average sports television viewer has soared in the age of the Internet.
Some of the numbers are stunning: the median age of an NHL viewer has skyrocketed from 33 in 2000 to 49 in 2016, according to Nielsen TV viewership numbers in the U.S. that Magna Global crunched.
Only pro wrestling had a larger jump in age — and it's not even a sport. And that’s why I would take with a grain of salt all the self-congratulating Sportsnet was doing this week with the release of numbers that showed TV ratings for this year’s NHL playoffs in Canada were up 94 per cent over last year.
For starters, there were no Canadian teams in last year’s playoffs, which meant historically bad ratings. For another, if Sportsnet’s business model is built on five Canadian teams making the playoffs every year like they did this year, good luck with that plan.
And last, if the median age of NHL fans in Canada is anything approaching the 49 it now is in the U.S., Sportsnet is going to have to find something other than just Viagra and reverse mortgages to fill its ad inventory.
And hockey is hardly alone in this grey-ification. Figure skating? The median age of a viewer has gone from 52 to 64. College basketball? The median has jumped from 44 to 52. MLB? The average viewer is now 57, up from 52.
Even the NFL — the multimillion-dollar behemoth considered the gold standard of sports marketing — has turned a shocking shade of grey, with the median viewer now clocking in at a creaky 50, up from 44 in 2000.
Add it up, and what you have is a clearly unsustainable greying of sports fans that will undermine the entire business models these billion-dollar leagues — and their millionaire players — are built upon if someone cannot find a way soon to get the kids to put down their damn phones and start paying attention.
Of course, the surest way to get people of any age to pay attention is to put a winning product on the field. Remember the capacity crowds at old Canad Inns Stadium in 2011, the year of Swaggerville and the last Bombers' appearance in the Grey Cup?
That stadium wasn’t fit to kennel dogs and yet people of every age packed it to the rafters — and temporary seating, too — all season long.
This town is starved for a winner, more than almost any other. And based on the 477 yards of offence they collectively put up against Edmonton Thursday night, the Bombers have the priceless luxury of three quarterbacks in Matt Nichols, Dan LeFevour and Dominique Davis all capable of delivering.
If those guys shred defences during the coming regular season the way they did Thursday night, the entire crowd — not just the folks in those new viewing decks — is going to be on its feet in 2017.
Even a millennial would look up from a phone to see that.