I'll give the Bengals this: 2011 has been one hell of a season. It's only fitting that the last week of the season promises to be a dramatic blow off top on a couple of levels. The first level is on the field, where the team needs to beat the holy-crap-when-will-it-end Ray Lewis era Ravens. I don't have much to add there except to say that the Bengals are perfectly capable of winning and as 2.5 point dogs at home I'd even consider putting money on them.
The second level of interest is fan attendance. Listening to local talk radio, it seems to be the main focus in fact. Make that national media too. See Pro Football Talk, Shutdown Corner at Yahoo!, ESPN and National Football Post for more. I expected many of these outlets to get this story completely wrong, and call out the city for having "bad fans". Instead, they get it kinda sorta correct and highlight the souring relationship between the fans and the ownership. Gregg Doyel actually comes down harder on ownership than we probably do here at WDR.
With paid attendance seemingly fluctuating more or less in the 40,000s, essentially the Bengals have about 20K+ season tickets available for future seasons they would love to sell. Another way to put it is that they are operating at 75% of the stadium's capacity. I wanted to take a look, using the best data I could find with some basic searching, to see exactly what is going on here in Cincy. We all have our own opinions and narratives we want to use to explain this story, but a little hard data goes a long way.
For starters, I'm working off of ESPN.com's attendance database, which is only good from 2006. Not perfect, but good enough because it captures the growth just before the Great Recession, the Great Recession, the Lockout and some of the economic recovery. For those interested, here's a spreadsheet of the data: Download Attendance Trends
In short, here is what has happened in Cincinnati: Since 2006, paid attendance in capacity terms has fallen roughly 27%. This happened in steady drips from 2007-2009 and then accelerated in 2010 and 2011.
According to ESPN, here is the capacity trend at PBS since 2006:
- 2006 - 100.7% full v NFL Avg 99.74%
- 2007 - 100.4% full (-0.3% drop) v NFL Avg 99.71% (-0.03% drop)
- 2008 - 98.6% full (-1.79% drop) v NFL Avg 97.05% (-2.66% drop)
- 2009 - 97.7% full (-0.93% drop) v NFL Avg 95.39% (-1.71% drop)
- 2010 - 92.1% full (-5.73% drop) v NFL Avg 94.54% (-0.89% drop)
- 2011 - 73.6% full (-20.09% drop) v NFL Avg 95.31% (0.82% gain)
One thing I will note is these stats do not factor in COST. I do not have good data for that. So if the almost flat attendance in the NFL during the Great Recession and the Lockout was propped up by collapsing ticket costs, that would make the paid attendance figures misleading. However, based on my understanding, the all-in cost of going to live games in the NFL and at PBS has not changed much or even increased on average during this entire time.
For example, in 2008, see this article which shows the "Fan Cost Index" rising over 6% in 2008 for Bengals fans. In 2009, the offseason during which the full recession effects would be hitting, Bengals all-in costs decreased only -0.9%. These same measures indicate the NFL raised prices in 2010 about 4% and kept things flat in 2011. You can argue about the exactness of these figures but the point is this: demand for the NFL is INELASTIC. People just don't cut their spending all that much on the NFL. Thus, the NFL hasn't been playing games with the cost to attend games and so this hasn't biased the attendance figures.
The reasons people generally cite to explain attendance trends for the most part come down to 1) Winning/Losing, 2) Economy 3) General fan interest and 4) Attractiveness of alternatives to attending live games (i.e., watching at home). These factors obviously don't work in isolation and their effects can be muddled, especially for the Bengals in the past 5 years. So let's take a look and see if the data really fits nicely into those explanations.
To begin with, factor #3 or "fan interest" is sky high and growing. You can see this from TV ratings. They are sick. For televised Bengals games, for example, roughly 65% of local tv's are tuned into the Bengals games when they play. Even with a lockout, fans haven't lost interest or held a grudge, as paid attendance for the entire NFL will climb this year for the first time since 2007. So let's just eliminate fan interest in football as explaining any of vagaries of attendance from year to year. People are addicted to it like crack.
Back to the Bengals. From 2006-2008, there was a general downtrend in performance as the Bengals could not sustain the success of their breakthrough 2005 season. During this time, at least, when most season ticket buying is done (the offseason), the economy was also not in recession. Thus, you see a slight downdrip in paid attendance. Nothing seems too strange here, and performance coupled with HDTV awesomeness could easily explain the drop in attendance over these years. You might expect a bigger drop in 2008 or in 2009 because the team was terrible in 2008 and the full force of the recession hit towards the end of 2008 and into 2009. However, there was a nice built in excuse for the poor performance of the team, Carson Palmer was out basically the whole year in 2008. Attendance declined only slightly for 2009 as fans may have viewed 2008 as worse than it would have been with Palmer healthy.
Indeed, the Bengals did rebound in 2009 with a division title, however, this did not translate into increased attendance in 2010. In fact, a sharp drop occurred of over 5%. It was the 3rd largest drop in the NFL that year. This is where things get interesting. Certainly performance cannot explain it. People do their season ticket buying in the offseason, so a good year on the field on average tends to drive attendance the following the year (for example poorly attended Tampa Bay won in 2010 and saw attendance climb over 14% in 2011).
Let's move onto the economy. By early 2010, the economy had bottomed and started to climb again. Why would people suddenly not be able to afford tickets in 2010 after making those payments in 2008 and 2009? Perhaps people tried to maintain some of their lifestyle through the recession but after it turned out the recovery was also weak they realized their prospects were still dim and they finally capitulated. I am sympathetic to this argument but economic factors should manifest themselves league-wide unless you are willing to argue that Cincinnati had a uniquely different economic experience in 2010 than the other NFL markets (hint: it did not). I do not see conclusive evidence that 2010 attendance was worse than the other recession years of 2008 and 2009. In fact, it appears to be slightly better on average for the league (though certain individual teams had a real nasty time like Tampa).
Beyond that, you would expect to see other sports entertainment in Cincinnati experience poor attendance trends. Reds, Bearcats and Xavier attendance records do not indicate any effect from the economy in 2010. Even the Freedom Center appears to have had flat attendance. Therefore, I cannot truly endorse this explanation, there just isn't any evidence.
Certainly each year, as more people play fantasy football and become more interested in ALL NFL teams and as HDTVs become cheaper and better, many fans are opting for the home or bar viewing experience instead of going to games. However, this is a multi-year trend that should act as a consistent drag over time in a league otherwise gaining in popularity. It is not a 2010 specific trend so that explanation doesn't seem right either. Traditional factors, therefore, don't really offer compelling explanations of the 2010 drop.
In 2011, stated clearly, Bengals attendance collapsed. Similar to 2010, it's tough to think the economy explained this drop as we're now into another year of the weak recovery and paid attendance will increase this year in the NFL for the first time in 3 years. And again, viewing at home didn't get suddenly so attractive 20% of fans abandoned season tickets. But performance, oh boy, that could certainly explain some things.
As I mentioned before, ticket purchasing takes place in the offseason and the 2010 offseason felt like the apocalypse while it was happening. With the awkward Marvin resigning, the lockout, letting JJoe walk despite him wanting to stay (ask @JohnThornton about that on Twitter), Carson retiring and hiring Jon Gruden's brother...fans were wondering what the f*** was going on? Coupled with a terrible on the field performance and the 2010 offseason was probably worse in Cincinnati than anywhere else in the NFL. My guess is this triggered the attendance collapse this year.
However, a fall this big is extremely rare. There are only 3 other teams that showed falls this large in the past 5 years. Two were in 2009, when the offseason ticket buying should theoretically have been hardest hit by the Great Recession. Those teams were Jacksonville and Oakland. Jacksonville has a reputation of being a market simply not capable of supporting a NFL team coming off of a miserable year and Oakland is a notoriously poor city where I would expect the recession to have an outsize affect and they coming off a long stretch of total futility. I can plausibly explain why those teams saw such a huge drop.
The other collapse was Tampa Bay in 2010 (down almost 22%). They were coming off of a 3 win season but many teams have awful years and don't see attendance fall THAT much. Traditional factors don't explain it and perhaps it was random. After all, Tampa attendance rebounded this year by 15%. I am not very familiar with that franchise but would curious to know if anyone could provide a narrative that made any sense. Regardless, the Tampa drop appears to be the best comparable drop to the Bengals, in that it happened outside the peak of the Great Recession window. Therefore, we might expect a large rebound in attendance next year if you believe in that the Tampa situation mirrors Cincy.
That's the data, limited as it is. The summary: the Bengals have had a huge attendance collapse but it's something with precedent and they can expect to gain some but not all fans back in the offseason.
However, something kind of smells about the 2010 drop. It's as if there was a forewarning that the Bengals were primed for a large attendance fall. I think a couple of narratives may help shed light on the Bengals attendance trend and predict a slightly different result than we have seen with Tampa.
The first narrative is this: fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
After the Bengals could not sustain winning after 2005, fans started to feel like they had again been duped into trusting Mike Brown. They had been fooled once by Mikey, and they were suspicious yet again. So in 2009, even though the Bengals won the division, the fans remained circumspect. After all, they didn't exactly impress in the 2nd half of 2009, limping to the division title, and they were crushed twice in a row by the Jets to end the regular season and the playoffs. The fans would not be fooled twice and stayed away.
When in 2010, the team performed miserably followed by the offseason apocalypse the fans decision not to be fooled appeared vindicated and this sent attendance into freefall.
That is where we are at. In the face of fan resistance, the Bengals have made some promising moves. Not enough for fans like us at WDR to remove our prejudice but they are certainly encouraging. First, they have had a good string of drafts, particulary the most recent. Second, there are stories Mike Brown was talked out of Mallett for Dalton, which, regardless of whether Dalton had performed as well as he did was encouraging because it shows a flexibility we had not previously seen. Third, they fired long time "friend of the family" Brat and brought in a guy who really seems to know how to call a game. Fourth, even Mike Brown demonstrated his principles do have a price and he dealt Carson.
Fan dissatisfaction has appeared sticky though. Despite holding the #1 seed in the AFC through 8 weeks in 2011, fans did not respond by buying tickets. Not until the recent BOGO deal did fans come back and start filling seats.
This leads to the second narrative that may explain what is going on: Bengals fans have reset the price at which they are willing to pay for tickets.
Note this is subtely different from saying the bad economy means tickets are too expensive. No, what it really means is that Bengals fans have decided they get an inferior product here in Cincy and it needs to come down in price. If the Bengals were a good product, people could pay the $65 for the cheapest ticket...they did in 2008 and 2009 after all. But the Bengals are a bad product and so people want it for less. It turns out that less may be anywhere from 25%-50% lower. Yikes.
Therefore, I think perhaps the Bengals may actually revisit their pricing given the success of BOGO. Lowering of ticket prices coupled with a good offseason means many fans will likely come back. However, the current state of Bengals fans is very fragile. The Brown Family has a small margin of error with their fanbase, who is ready at a moment's notice to shed their season tickets.
At WDR, the boycott remains. The Bengals remain guily until proven innocent and while they are doing some marginal things to make their case they have not yet provided smoking gun evidence of change. As Bengals fans though, we will not let that stop us from enjoying the conclusion to this refreshing regular season. As I have said before, this season has been the best of all worlds here: the team is doing well on the field and fans are sending Mike Brown a message.