TORONTO, ONTARIO - As long as twenty-five years ago, there was an interesting phenomenon amongst unlimited hydroplane racing fans. Enthusiasts of the sport that would attend every race that they could over the course of the year would not attend race day in Seattle, Washington. Why? It wasn't the weather or ticket prices. The Seattle race was always televised, and the coverage on the local station was often so good, and the views from the television camera so much better than what could be seen from the shore, that the fans thought the experience was more engaging at home on television than along Lake Washington.
In twenty-five years, a lot has improved in television technology. Large-screen televisions are far more commonplace for average consumers. Analog television has been replaced with digital television that makes the picture even more clear and real to the viewer. Watching television feels even more like actually being somewhere than it ever has before, and now the same phenomenon that was occurring long ago with unlimited hydroplane racing is happening to other sports.
The Toronto Blue Jays, the only major-league baseball team in Canada, is now receiving record television ratings. Despite being on a cable channel, the games are often viewed by more than 500,000 people (as cited in the Toronto Star). Meanwhile, the in-person attendance at the Rogers Centre is about as low as it has ever been. According to TSN, opening night aside, the team has averaged just 14,853 fans in its first 25 home games. Attendance has exceeded 20,000 only twice, in a stadium that holds nearly 50,000.
Clearly, the team doesn't have a popularity problem. Besides the record television ratings, their on-the-field record has exceeded expectations, competitive in the American League East and the wild card race. It just seems that the fans prefer their in-home television experience to the experience in the Rogers Centre.
Perhaps this isn't so surprising. Traffic and parking are huge problems in Toronto and around the Rogers Centre in particular. The amenities of the Rogers Centre pale in comparison with more modern stadiums from the new Camden Yards in Baltimore to Safeco Field in Seattle. Ticket prices effectively went up this year with the end of some package deals and most promotions.
Yet, the Blue Jays might really be canaries on this issue. As home entertainment technology improves (think live baseball in 3D), this phenomenon isn't going to be limited to Toronto. For that matter, it will not be limited to baseball. It is not inconceivable that within a decade, for most fans, the experience at home will be better than the experience in person. The whole business model for sports may need to be re-evaluated--and the teams and sports that anticipate this and create a new sustainable model will be the ones that will still be around in a generation.