FOXBOROUGH — It’s hard to imagine a day when the New England Patriots, who have sold out every home game since 1994 and have 60,000 fans on a paid waiting list for season tickets, would have trouble filling Gillette Stadium. But team executives are spending a lot of time thinking about that possibility, even as the clock ticks down to Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
“If we want people to still come to our stadium and find it worth the money, we have to figure out how we give an experience that’s different than the experience at home and give you all the comforts of home,” Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said this week during a technology summit at Gillette, where he was the keynote speaker.
Though the Patriots stand one win away from their seventh Super Bowl berth under his family’s ownership, Kraft said a winning history isn’t enough to guarantee future profits. Without ever-better stadium technology, he said, “Live venue viewing at this scale is really going to be put at risk.”
Possible coming attractions at Gillette include streaming audio of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels relaying play calls to quarterback Tom Brady, and locker room video at halftime that ticket holders can view on their smartphones. New apps could soon direct fans to ideal parking spots and allow them to buy food and drink from mobile devices so they can pick up their orders without waiting in line.
Patriots spokesman Stacey James said the NFL would have to approve the streaming of locker room video and on-field audio, and the media would be edited or delayed — by 15 to 20 seconds, Kraft suggested. If the league introduced such features, James stressed, it would be sure to do it in a way that protects information Bill Belichick and other coaches closely guard.
A former Patriots player, who requested anonymity to speak about the team’s internal workings, said play calls are so complex and varied that opponents likely wouldn’t gain an advantage by hearing them, anyway — especially after the play has happened.
All of the planned stadium extras could be available as early as next season, thanks to a high-capacity Wi-Fi system installed during the summer by Enterasys Networks Inc., a Salem, N.H., company.
Some tech enhancements have already been made at Gillette. Three seasons ago, the Patriots started using Wi-Fi to offer exclusive camera angles and statistics to fans in luxury suites. This season, the expanded network has given all stadium-goers free mobile access to the popular NFL RedZone channel, which jumps from game to game when teams appear poised to score. During the team’s playoff win over the Houston Texans last Sunday, a quarter of the fans at Gillette used the Wi-Fi network — an all-time high.
The Patriots franchise is at the vanguard of enhanced live sports viewing, which analysts say is increasingly necessary to compete with the cost, convenience, and comfort of watching games from home. Only seven of the NFL’s 30 other stadiums — including recently opened MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, shared by the New York Giants and Jets, and the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium — have comparable Wi-Fi networks.
Kraft said the technology resources of his family’s company, the Kraft Group, give the Patriots an uncommon ability to develop and test mobile apps in-house. That edge puts the club “head and shoulders above anything else going on anywhere else,” he said.
Kraft, who cochairs the NFL’s digital media committee, said the club began to seriously consider upgrades in 2009, as high-definition television became ubiquitous in homes. HDTV, in many cases, offers a better view of the field than a seat at the stadium. Plus, there is no line at the bathroom or refrigerator, and it’s never 15 degrees and snowing on a sofa.
Then there’s the expense: This season, a family of four could expect to pay about $607 in tickets, parking fees, and concessions to see the Patriots play, according to Team Marketing Report, a sports industry tracking firm in Wilmette, Ill.
“One of the advantages of being at home is that second screen experience you get with your smartphone or tablet, which gives you some of the interaction you can get at the stadium without dealing with the weather, other fans, and exorbitant prices,” said Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group. “For a lot of people, that’s a compelling reason to stay home.”
In ESPN’s latest annual fan poll, 41 percent of fans said they would rather watch a game on television than in the stands.
Though it remains robust, NFL attendance is trending downward. After peaking in 2007, gate counts declined in each of the next four seasons. They rebounded this season, but remained 1 percent lower than the high of five years ago.
“When somebody asks me to go to a game now, I’m reluctant,” said William A. Sutton, director of the sport and entertainment management program at the University of South Florida and an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan. “I’ve got the NFL Sunday Ticket package, my feet up on the La-Z-Boy, and beer is $3.99 for a six-pack at my house.”
On the rare occasions when Sutton does attend a live event, he finds himself trying to mimic the at-home viewing mode, despite his best efforts to keep his eyes on the field. Sutton recalled flying to Dallas last month to see the Steelers play the Cowboys and making a pact with his friends to watch the action on the gridiron, not on the stadium’s 11,520-square-foot screen.
No one kept the promise.
“[Steelers quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger was 15 feet tall,” Sutton said. “It was like watching the game at an IMAX, and I liked it. That was the sort of unique experience that made me say, ‘I’d like to do it again.’ ”
Traditionalists lament the advancing march of technology in sports. Dave Zirin, author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love,” said the Patriots’ initiative represents a widespread attempt “to turn stadiums from places where you get together with 50,000 of your closest friends and scream your head off to an environment where you have 50,000 people staring at their phones all the time.”
“I hate it,” Zirin said. “It makes me physically nauseous.”
But the Patriots and other local sports teams have concluded the best way to keep fans coming through the turnstiles is to cater to contemporary habits.
The Bruins and Celtics are working on a high-capacity Wi-Fi network at TD Garden. The Red Sox this season will test a loyalty program using mobile technology to track fans’ attendance at Fenway Park and then reward them for coming. One goal is to reduce no-shows, which have made a mockery of the team’s 793-game sellout streak and caused a drop in game-day revenue.
“We make money if people watch on TV, but when people come into the park, our per-cap [spending] is about 20 bucks a person,” said Heidi Labritz, the Red Sox’s director of business applications and a panelist at the technology summit in Foxborough this week. “So if we have 4,000 people that don’t show up for a game, even though they bought a ticket, it’s a lot of money [lost].”
No-shows haven’t been a problem for the Patriots, but the team’s push to make a stadium visit more attractive, like the Red Sox effort, is partly about maximizing game-day spending. For instance, Fred Kirsch, Patriots vice president of content, said apps that make it easier to buy concessions and merchandise will boost revenue.
“We’re going to give our fans opportunities to do things they couldn’t do just sitting in their seat,” Kirsch said. “Of course, that means more money for us.”