NFL attendance issues not just for also-rans

Mike Tomlin isn’t much on public gratitude. Still, the

perpetually focused Pittsburgh Steelers coach went out of his way

to thank the fans who showed up at Heinz Field to watch his team

drum the Buffalo Bills 23-10 on Sunday for its third win of the

season.

”It’s not something we take for granted,” Tomlin said.

Good idea.

A crowd of 60,406 turned out to watch two teams with a combined

5-12 record play on a cold, blustery day more suited for

late-December than three weeks before Thanksgiving. The 5,000 or so

who bought their tickets but chose to not make it through the

turnstiles were conspicuous, their absence marked by pockets of

open gold seats in certain portions of the stadium tucked tight

against the Allegheny River.

Welcome to life in the new NFL, where ”sellouts” are the norm

but full houses are becoming the exception, and not just in places

like woeful Jacksonville.

Blame it on mediocre teams. Blame it on rising ticket prices.

Blame in on the comfort of your couch, where it doesn’t cost

hundreds of dollars to sit, and the cold beer in your fridge, the

one that doesn’t cost $8 a bottle.

The Steelers (3-6), who have six Vince Lombardi Trophies in the

lobby at team headquarters, are in danger of posting their lowest

average attendance since 2003, when they limped to a 6-10 record

and missed the playoffs.

The franchise is on a similar trajectory this fall in a place

that can be tough – by NFL standards – to completely fill even when

times are good. Pittsburgh is averaging 61,465 through four home

dates, the lowest over the same span since Heinz Field opened in

2001.

It’s a trend hitting the league regardless of market size or

on-field success. In 2008, only five teams played to stadiums less

than 95 percent full. That number has doubled this season at a time

when TV ratings are at their best since 2006.

The Washington Redskins have one of the NFL’s rising stars in

quarterback Robert Griffin III and are playing to just 88.9 percent

capacity this season. The surprising New York Jets have the

nation’s largest metropolitan area to pull from and only 93.3 of

those with tickets are showing up.

Then again, New York can be a tough market.

Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was on the 2007 Jets

that limped to a 4-12 record. As the season wore on and the losses

mounted, things got weird.

”Pittsburgh came to town but it felt like an away game,”

Cotchery said. ”It was so loud in there. I remember us doing

silent count and all of that stuff at home. But we were a bad team.

I probably wouldn’t want to take my kid out in the cold and watch a

bad team play football.”

It can lead, in some instances, to the unnerving realization

that players can’t simply rely on the juice – or the vitriol – from

the crowd to get amped up.

”When we play on the road, certain places are just known for

being quiet,” Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ”It’s

almost like in the huddle, you have to keep reminding yourself to

keep your energy up and realize that some of these places are

really quiet and you have to create your own energy a little

bit.”

The NFL amended its TV blackout rule last year, allowing teams

to sell only 85 percent of its prime tickets to meet the threshold

necessary to have home games broadcast locally. While the decision

has done nothing but goose TV ratings even further, getting folks

into the stadium on a regular basis in some cities remains a tough

task.

Oakland and Jacksonville swath their stadiums in massive drapes

that cover entire sections. It reduces capacity but hasn’t exactly

increased demand. While the atmosphere has improved with the

Raiders, only 81.4 percent of ticket holders make it to their

seats. More than 10 percent of those with tickets in Jacksonville

don’t bother to get an eyeful of one of the league’s worst

teams.

Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer is prepping the Cardinals for

an ”interesting atmosphere” when they visit the Jaguars (1-8) on

Sunday, where tickets are going for as low as $8 on StubHub. To be

honest, he’s going to miss the opportunity to quiet a hostile

environment, mostly because there likely won’t be one.

”You can’t worry about any of those outside distractions,”

Palmer said. ”You’ve just got to focus on doing your job each and

every play, and do what it takes to win the game, regardless of how

many people are watching or who is in the stands.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell continues to stress the in-game fan

experience remains important to the league. It also remains

important to the bottom lines of owners, if only to fatten their

wallets.

When Personal Seat Licensing came into vogue, it created a new

revenue stream by making fans plunk down thousands just for the

right to buy tickets. It priced some longtime season ticket holders

out of the market and as the U.S. economy sputtered, so did

interest in making a significant financial commitment to get in the

door when the living room can be just as inviting and significantly

cheaper.

And owners continue to press for new stadiums even as evidence

mounts that less might be more. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has

turned AT&T Stadium into a virtual ATM since it opened in 2009.

Dallas averages more than 86,000 fans a game, well over 100 percent

capacity, even as the team continues to hover around .500.

The Falcons have barely been in the Georgia Dome two decades and

already they’ve struck a deal on a new $1 billion building that

will be ready by 2017.

The Steelers aren’t greedy enough to ask for new digs, but they

are planning to add an additional 3,000 seats at Heinz Field, even

though they’ve never averaged more than 63,458 per game since its

debut in 2001. All that’s left is deciding who picks up most of the

tab. The issue remains in the Pittsburgh courts, though whenever

the expansion is complete, the same factors that fans face every

Sunday will remain in place.

”It’s just how it works,” Cotchery said. ”When you’re losing

like (we did in New York), those decisions have to be made. Do I go

to the game or do I not go to the game? I know it’s tough. ”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Doug Ferguson in

Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.