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Merely Transactional: The NFL and Vegas A Match Made…

Seth Godin wrote a really fascinating post this morning called “Merely Transactional” about the Oakland Raiders.

Seth’s post was a pretty searing indictment of the state of modern capitalism, at least in the States, but just as much the modern state of sports business where lip service is paid to fans, but really fans are just a nuisance that is necessary to get people’s money.

This, of course, played out on a much more intense stage this week as the NFL voted to allow the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.

Sure, the Raiders are going to get something around $750 million in funds from the state of Nevada to help them build their new palace.

Sure, the city of Oakland was “only” going to pony up somewhere between $200-$300 million at best to build a new stadium in Oakland.

Sure, if you follow the numbers and the money, who wouldn’t take $750 million over $200.

That’s the wise decision, right?

What if it isn’t?

The success of the Raiders experiment in Las Vegas is predicated on some really, really, really shaky logic.

Which is that tourists are going to come into Vegas specifically because their team is playing the Raiders.

I know that Las Vegas is driven by tourism, but that’s pretty shaky logic in any situation. Because let’s put it pretty bluntly, on the whole, people don’t really travel en masse to see their favorite NFL teams.

Sure, there are people that might see that their team is playing the Dolphins in October and be looking for a reason to take a trip, so they decide to go to Miami to catch the game…but that isn’t a wide spread, 20,000 or more group trip.

Not like college, where the whole bowl situation is often decided on how well a college team’s fans will travel.

But that’s just it, the whole sports business industry seems built on the transactional right now.

I’ve written over and over again about the need for sports to recognize that the TV networks aren’t really the leagues and teams partners on their broadcast deals. They are really competitors because the leagues don’t really care about the games being full at the venue, they only care about driving more and more viewers to turn on their TV sets and watch the games on TV.

That’s why the improvement in TV watching experience is creating a dangerous addiction for fans. Because this really means that if we aren’t careful, fans will never have a real incentive to come to the games, especially if we continue to sanitize and water down the in-venue experience.

Which leads me back to the Raiders, the NFL, and Las Vegas.

I don’t blame Las Vegas one bit for wanting a major sports team in their town, or even all of them. A city and region wants what it wants.

What I do doubt them on is some of the assumptions that everyone is making to justify adding two teams in a year where there had been none before.

There are a number of different reasons for my skepticism. Let’s just look at 3.

  1. The nature of the Las Vegas economy: Depending on local ticket sales and local attendance is an iffy proposition. The Triple A team in Vegas, the 51s, play to an average attendance of less than 50%. The economy is driven largely by service workers who often have non-traditional work schedules. And, the average income in the Las Vegas metro area is about $51,000 which is around 8-9% lower than the average of the United States.
  2. Market competition: Las Vegas is built on the spectacle. Who doesn’t love going to Las Vegas to see a show, dine out, shop, and other stuff? I’d say very few people, if only just once. But the thing about it is that the casinos have been going nuclear on each other to add options and entertainment to their venues to keep people there. Not to leave to go off site to somewhere else. To stay, to never leave, to get intoxicated. Not to leave the site. And, it isn’t just one casino…no, its an entire city of casinos, all built on keeping people on site. Not at a football stadium.
  3. No built in fan base: I say this as delicately as possible, but the fan base for most of our major sports is eroding. We’ve done an insanely terrible job as sports and entertainment professionals of developing the next generation of fans and really keeping and nurturing many of the ones we have. All you have to do is look at the TV ratings and the youth sports participation numbers.

When you combine those 3 alone, the justification for a move of any nature by any team to anything but a huge market is iffy. Which I could have added the size of the Las Vegas market isn’t huge.

But I get it, take the money where you can, right?

That’s the challenge we are dealing with across the sports business world, take the money when we can…even when it cuts off our nose to spite our face.

See, as Seth wrote, our sports has become extremely transactional.

Gone are the days of fathers and sons watching baseball games together because most of the games start too late for young kids to ever see. In many cities, even the weekend games are night games.

Gone are the days where fandom was passed down from generation to generation. What passes for marketing in most sports now is too heavily focused on features, bells and whistles of attending the game, not the value from an experience with your community.

Gone are days of having a pleasant experience in most stadiums with unique food and beverage, a local flavor, and a culture built around going to a game at your stadium, being a fan of your team, and developing a lifelong affection for the experience of being a fan.

In fact, we have gone the exact opposite way.

The game scheduling is driven entirely by TV demands, fan experience or fan enjoyment be damned.

Teams aren’t marketing as community assets, but instead are just another transactional place to go. Just one of many ways you can spend a night on the town. Except for the few times a year LeBron James comes to town. He draws a crowd. But its just him.

Teams aren’t part of a long running narrative any longer. Where dads pass the stories of their love of baseball down to their kids, helping them uncover the ins and outs of baseball; helping teach the kid about jumpers; or the beauty of a strong running game.

And, god forbid if you want to go to a game in person.

Sure, we have “premium” everything. To the point where premium is a worthless word.

But when was the last time you attended a game where it felt like the people working at the stadium actually cared you were there?

I can remember, it was probably 2010 or 2011 at Citi Field in NYC and, probably, night two of Pearl Jam at MSG in 2016.

I’m rare, I get it.

I can see stuff as both a business person and as a fan.

Because I still never call in a favor to go see Pearl Jam. I buy my tickets like everyone else.

I still like to be able to buy a ticket to an Orioles game or a Nationals game and just take my son as a fan.

But as a business, we are failing ourselves, our owners, and our customers.

The first gig as business people is that we build and keep customers.

Moves like the Raiders to Oakland, the Chargers to Los Angeles are penny wise and pound foolish because the NFL has told fans, you aren’t that important to us. You are just pawns in our game to keep driving revenue.

When you feel that way about your fans, they can feel it as well. They may never say it directly to you either, and you may not even feel the tide turning, but when it does start…it is a generation before you can turn it back.

My hope is that it isn’t too late for all of our sports to step back, look at the business we are in, and realize that these are long term investments. The long game is the only game.

Unfortunately, my feeling is we may have already lost a generation to our own worse excesses.

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