Post-lockdown fans prefer to watch sports outside the venue

30 June 2023 5 min. read
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The number of empty seats across a number of leading sporting events is on the rise – in the wake of a major public health crisis and spiraling rates of inflation. According to a new report, this is seeing many supporters trade in the in-stadium experience for the comforts of armchair fandom.

For decades, top sporting events have taken their fans for granted. Prices of tickets have exploded well above the rate of inflation, while the standard of food, drinks, and customer service has remained the same – as most organisations assume that their supporters would continue to pay an arm and a leg simply for the privilege of being in the stadium when their beloved team might occasionally put on a decent performance.

In some respects, that holds true. Attendances in English football’s Premier League are largely going from strength to strength, even after the Covid-19 pandemic. As recently noted by The Athletic, Chelsea attracted a sparse 8,923 attendance for a game against Coventry City in May 1994, but three decades on, Stamford Bridge is regularly full, even though the prices have gone through the roof. Similarly, it has become extremely hard to get tickets for any game at Anfield, but as late as Gerard Houllier’s final season in 2003/04 Liverpool fans could still buy a general ticket on a matchday. And even though Manchester United has gone a decade without winning the league, while Old Trafford is visibly falling apart, it still sells out every week.

Post-lockdown fans prefer to watch sports outside the venue

This experience does not seem to translate to every sport – or indeed, to every scenario within football. Major League Baseball (MLB) saw attendances drop by 5.7% on average for the 2022 season compared with 2019, marking the largest single-season drop since 2009. Meanwhile, rugby union’s English premiership, competition match attendances are, on average, down by around 1,000 from 12,636 in the 2018–19 season, the last full season before the pandemic, to 11,632 in the most recently concluded campaign. This is a devastating blow for rugby union teams in particular – with two top-flight clubs having folded under the financial strain in the last season.

As sporting institutions around the world consider how to woo fans back into the stands, a new study from Capgemini has examined some of the reasons behind supporters’ exodus from stadiums. Conducting a global survey of 12,000 sports fans over the age of 18, across 11 countries, the firm also conducted in-depth interviews with 15 professional sportspeople and industry experts to understand what organisations can do to keep bums in seats.

According to the findings, the rate of satisfaction with the in-venue experience has fallen rapidly since the pandemic. At the end of 2019, 79% of fans said they were satisfied with supporting from the stands, but in 2023 that has sunk to 70%. In contrast, meanwhile, the outside-venue experience is now more popular – with satisfaction having risen by 6% to 82%. Breaking this down into age demographics, Capgemini found that older consumers had the smallest gap in satisfaction – though the over-70s were overall less satisfied with everything.

 Meanwhile, Gen-Z were most satisfied with outside-venue experiences, but were largely more positive about everything. Capgemini’s assertion from this is that technology-enabled experiences – which younger consumers are more likely to engage with – are boosting sentiment to sports viewing both in and out of stadiums.

Post-lockdown fans prefer to watch sports outside the venue

“In the last few years, the ways in which we’re able to consume sport have completely transformed,” said Pascal Brier, Chief Innovation Officer at Capgemini and member of the Group Executive Committee. “Technology is granting a greater level of immersion and interactivity with the game, even if we’re viewing it from thousands of miles away. This provides sports businesses with the potential to reach the next generation of global fans in new, innovative, and exciting ways. However, our research also indicates that technological advancements around the in-stadium experience have not kept pace. The next stage of the digital transformation of sport is to similarly revolutionise how we view sport in-person.”

To that end, the firm found that the top fan experiences involving technology could be used to help boost physical attendance. The top response saw 68% of consumers having used smartphones to get player stats while watching a game live, and 65% accessing 360-degree replays to see a better angle in the stadium. Meanwhile, 54% had used technology to order food and beverages which were then delivered to their seat at the venue – suggesting that organisations could boost their digital offerings to compete with the comforts of home-viewing.

This does call into question a number of other variables which digitalisation alone cannot improve, however. For one, the cost and standard of food in stadiums – as the infamous social media account Footy Scran often depicts – are obscenely out of whack. Amid the cost of living crisis – which Capgemini’s report did not mention – the convenience of the food’s delivery is unlikely to appeal to fans if it is still a burnt hotdog on a plain bun priced upwards of £8, even if they aren’t put off by the huge ticket prices.

At the same time, health concerns remain for fans following the pandemic, and safety concerns will also push fans away from stadiums, in the wake of incidents such as Uefa’s dangerously flawed crowd control tactics at the 2022 Champions League final. Without finding ways to accommodate such concerns, whether or not in-stadium AR enables better views of goals, a growing number of fans are likely to save their money and stay home.