Last Monday, I was up in the Bay Area on business. My 10 year old son was on Christmas break, so he was with me on the trip. As die-hard Steeler fans, it was a no brainer to try and grab tickets to the Steelers/49ers game at Candlestick Park. Monday Night Football, two 10-3 teams fighting for playoff position, it was bound to be a classic. And it was to be my son’s first NFL game. I made a few calls and lucked out. 2 tickets in the lower bowl. A monumental occasion, a boy’s first NFL game. Father and Son. The stuff great memories are made of.
Only it didn’t turn out that way. Of course our experience would have been better had the Steelers won (or even put up a fight). But with Big Ben on one wheel and playing on the road, I prepared my son for a likely loss. What made the experience so brutal wasn’t the Steelers performance on the field. It was the fan experience at the stadium.
Although broadcast and sponsor revenue are critical to all major pro leagues, stadium revenue is arguably most important. A full stadium drives ticket sales as well as revenue from parking, concessions and merchandise. And a packed house gives the home team critical home field/court advantage. Here’s the thing: happy fans spend more money. Happy fans make more noise. Happy fans become repeat customers.
Which is what really blew me away about our Candlestick experience. It seemed that Candlestick really doesn’t care a lick about fan experience.
We planned to arrive at the game in plenty of time to check out tailgating, grab some food, watch pre-game warmups. Remembering the old days when my dad and I used to go to LA Raider games, I decided to leave plenty of time to get into the parking lot.
Getting to the game was brutal. The last 3 miles took us over an hour. Bottlenecked traffic, SUV’s turning right from the left lane, and left from the right lane. Three lanes total leading into crammed parking lots. Sadly, getting into a stadium hasn’t changed much since the 80’s.
Then there was the will call line, which took another 30 minutes. Finally tickets in hand, we waited another half hour to get through security and into the stadium. Every single fan was patted down by slow moving, unmotivated part-time security guys. Fans grew impatient and irate. That’s no way to welcome customers into your building. If it weren’t for the now famous power outage, no way would we have made kickoff.
Inside the stadium was no better. Food lines were ridiculous. Choices were very limited. My son had fries and a large Sprite for dinner. I waited in line 20 minutes for a cold burger served on a frozen bun. And as we waited in line, a nasty fight broke out between obviously hammered 49er and Steeler fans. My son was shocked and frightened. I had to shield him and then calm him down. The fight lasted at least 5 minutes, and security never showed up.
We left the game with 5:00 left, hoping to beat the crowd. 45 minutes later, we were still fighting our way back to the freeway. On the way out, countless drunk fans spotted our Steeler gear. We were cursed at, had beer thrown at us, and got flipped off several times. I expect some of this, but as the father of a 10 year old, I guess I’m getting conservative. I felt like I had put my son in a situation that he wasn’t ready for.
I can’t comprehend why the NFL allows this kind of experience to happen. Shouldn’t franchises be held to certain standards? Every Starbucks in the world has customer experience standards. Why don’t sports teams? I know Candlestick is a dump waiting for the demolition ball, but things like crowd control, efficient security and decent food don’t require a new stadium. Teams that neglect fan experience not only hurt their own bottom line, but they damage the reputation of the entire league.
The NFL is the most popular and successful professional league on the planet. It’s absurd that the live experience for some fans still leaves so much to be desired.