How Well are NFL Teams Filling the Stands?

How Well are NFL Teams Filling the Stands?

When a long-suffering team heats up for a run to the playoffs, die-hard fans can get a little resentful of those with newfound enthusiasm. The allegation that you’re a “bandwagon fan” is a serious charge among NFL fanatics: To be a true supporter, some say, you have to root for the franchise through the good, bad, and ugly. But when it comes to who shows up at the stadium on Sunday, does a good record actually incentivize attendance? Do previously empty seats really start filling up once a team becomes successful?

We set out to find out, comparing attendance for teams that made the playoffs against those that didn’t. We’ve studied a decade of data to learn which squads draw healthy crowds even when they’re down, and which teams see support plunge when the losses start piling up. Keep reading to find out which teams enjoy the most consistent fans and which see attendance suffer when they miss the postseason.

A Decade of Attendance

A Decade of Attendance

According to our statistics, playoff teams did tend to have an edge concerning raw attendance totals and percentage of total seats occupied. But that trend is not without exception: In 2017, in fact, teams that made the postseason actually filled a lower percentage of potential seats than those who missed the playoffs. Then again, only playoff-bound teams have averaged 100% capacity or more and have done so three separate times over the last 10 years. In 2009, the gulf between postseason teams and everyone else was particularly dramatic: Playoff participants averaged 100.1% of their official seating capacity that year, while the other teams filled just 92.6% of their seats.

Average total attendance records have fluctuated over the last decade, both for teams that made it to the playoffs and those that did not. All teams had a tough 2010, with playoff teams averaging 68,610 fans a game and non-playoff teams seating just 65,959. 2016, on the other hand, brought high attendance figures for teams of both kinds. That seating success could not be sustained, however, with attendance averages falling substantially across the league in 2017. The dip did not go unnoticed, thanks to unflattering images of empty seats during a Thursday night game shared by fans on social media.  

Filling Seats by Franchise

Filling Seats by Franchise

Although they may be known as “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys sure don’t lack for local support, either. Over the last decade, the team has averaged 108.1% of their official seating capacity, a stat that strengthens the Cowboys claim to the best fanbase in the NFL. Dallas isn’t the only franchise to regularly surpass their stated capacity, though: Nine other teams averaged at least 100% of their official seating figures from 2008 to 2017. Other standouts included Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Green Bay.

After going without a franchise for decades, Los Angeles football fans may still be warming up to attending games on Sunday. The big city market may have had NFL execs salivating, but the Rams have had a tough time avoiding empty stands as of late. Oakland’s paltry attendance has actually galvanized a move to Las Vegas in the years to come, but that transition is on hold until a new stadium can be built. Here’s to hoping fans will be more eager for the Raiders in Sin City.

Fairweather Fans?

The Cowboys pack AT&T Stadium even when they’re struggling, but crowds in winning years are simply astronomical. With a 7.4% increase in playoff seasons, the Cowboys average 113.5% of their official capacity. The Detroit Lions had the second largest playoff year jump, but their attendance percentage was nowhere close to that of Dallas. Even in seasons in which they made the postseason, they reached only 96.9% capacity on average. The same was true for the Jaguars, who got a sizeable lift when the team succeeded but averaged only 95.6% capacity in their playoff years.

Some teams seemed to bring out the same number of fans regardless of their records, such as the Redskins, Saints, and Packers. Then there were the nine teams with attendance records that defied explanation, filling a smaller percentage of seats in their best years. Thankfully, these playoff year declines tended to be minimal, with the notable exception of the Rams. After the excitement of their first year in Los Angeles, the fledgling fan base seems to have contracted despite an excellent 2017 season.

Holding It Down for the Home Team

Our data suggest some teams see ticket sales spike when they’re winning, while others enjoy a packed house regardless of their performance. But even for franchises with relatively fickle support, the vast majority of seats are filled on any given Sunday. Sure, everyone likes to see the home team win, but perhaps the appeal of an NFL game isn’t contingent on the outcome. There’s nothing quite like sitting in the stands, however unlikely a victory seems for your team. So if you have the chance to attend a game soon, give it a shot. Even if your team is abysmal this year, you won’t be called a bandwagon fan once they get good again.

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Methodology

We collected data from ESPN.com, which collects publicly available attendance records for each game played by an NFL franchise. Our project utilized regular season attendance records for each team from 2008 to 2017. In cases in which a team had been in existence for fewer than 10 seasons, we tallied data for all seasons available.

No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic more rigorously.

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