by Chris Foss
Last April, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game in an empty stadium. This was out of concern for public safety in the wake of urban rioting following the suspicious death of an African American man while he was held in custody. This was an extraordinary event, but Florida Marlins games were often played in front of non-existent crowds before their new ballpark opened. The Denver Nuggets can hardly get a thousand people to a Monday night game. In the last five years we have seen the proliferation of high-definition TVs screens at home and at restaurants. Anxieties about random gun violence and terrorism have increased, making sports arenas targets, as we saw in Paris last November. Recently Keith’s dad, a life-long soccer fan, skipped the Major League Soccer cup final between the Portland Timbers and his beloved Columbus Crew because he found the home experience to be easier and more comfortable. Certainly he’s not alone in voicing those sentiments.
Is there still value left in the live sporting event? In February, the Golden State Warriors came to Portland to play the Trail Blazers. I could have stayed at home to watch the game, but my friend Jeff asked if I wanted to go see it live. I thought the night would be a good test case for an article about the value of seeing sports live, versus staying at home.
The Moda Center is about a 25-minute drive from my house. Given it was a Friday night, I left myself 45 minutes to meet Jeff at a restaurant about a 10-minute walk from the arena. Planning ahead paid off—my GPS proved inaccurate, and traffic was horrid. I found free street parking near the restaurant, met Jeff, and walked over to the arena.
The traffic was tough even though I planned for it, and the rain poured at times, making things a bit tricky. But if you can hoof it, driving then walking from street parking is the way to go no matter where you are. Public transit would have been more expensive. As with many sports arenas in many cities, the surrounding area was full of cheaper dining options than in the arena.
Pros/cons of staying home: Obviously, you’re already home. At the rate non-sports programming is going cordless, you’re looking at paying a flat rate of anywhere from $50 to even $200 per month to get access to all your sports. If you’re OK with just ESPN, though, you can get it now through Amazon Fire or even a smartphone app. If you don’t have cable or satellite, for the vast majority of your sports events, you have to find a pub, or watch the game at a buddy’s domicile. The latter is usually a good option, though.
The Moda Center has followed the trend of many arenas nationwide and gone local with their in-house dining experience. Jeff and I ate at Killer Burger, part of a local chain specializing in bacon cheeseburgers and low-sodium fries. The experience highlighted a truism of going to a live game—you have to be prepared to pay more to eat/drink. The burger was $11.50 versus the chain’s regular $9.65 price, and a bottle of water was $4.50. Draft beers ranged from $8-10.
From the kiosk where we bought our food, we ventured upstairs to the 300-level near our seats. In the past, the hungry fan had little recourse but to sit in their seat and try to levitate their food while jockeying for arm room with their neighbor, or doing the stand-up-and-sit-down routine. But Moda has added tables you can stand at to eat all over the arena, a simple but functional feature. On nice nights, fans can venture outside to get a view of the city and sit down if they need to while eating. Nearby TVs keep you up to date on the game and let you know when to head back in. Moda is outfitted with a variety of food kiosks, carts, and even full-service sit-down restaurants. Even the 300-level has a club-like bar serving fresh draft beers.
It’s too bad that the prices are so high, but understandable—you have to be able to find workers willing to work crappy hours, and, in a good economy, pay them more to do so. But if you go in knowing you have to pay to play, and you’re OK with it, the modern arena dining experience will reward you with decent food. In the old days, stadium food was expensive and bad.
Pros/cons of staying home: Food is the easiest part of the live sports experience to lose. If you go, eat or drink before you go. If you stay home, you can make your own healthy food (or for you quick metabolizers or kids, unhealthy food) for a fraction of the cost. It’s way cheaper to get your buzz on at home, too, and safer, since you won’t be driving.
This is the center of it all for most fans. Jeff had upper-level tickets, but they were a little less than halfway up the deck, and as a bonus, they were partially over the entryway, giving us an unobstructed view. The elbow room was definitely tight, but you frequent fliers know how that goes, and at least in the arena you don’t have seatbelts and turbulence to deal with.
I remember in the past being deafened by the arena sound system, with loud music, dumb on-court distractions during timeouts, etc.—an excess of entertainment. It’s now toned down a bit. I could actually talk with Jeff during dead balls and timeouts. The folks running the Moda Center have put more of a premium on letting fans dictate the experience, not vice-versa. And the upper deck got appropriately rowdy as the Blazers built a big lead. The fans in our section led most of the chants in the arena, and got into the game without getting vulgar.
The product on the court definitely helped the fan experience. Major sports leagues, for all of the bad business they get into off the field/court, have gradually improved the games for the in-house fans. NBA games are brisk in comparison to when I was a kid going to games with my dad, when the four-corners pace made it seem like the nights dragged on forever. As much as the touch-foul refereeing drives me crazy, it admittedly gives the game a much-needed jolt of energy. Players have to lay off the hard fouls, allowing for a more athletic and smoother flow to the game.
Some nights the close quarters could really ruin the experience, depending on who is sitting next to you. Also, there will be nights of Memphis Grizzlies-style “bully-ball”, especially when the shots aren’t dropping or the refs make too many calls, that will drag down the in-game experience. For the most part, though, I was extremely satisfied.
Pros/cons of staying home: You really can’t replicate the live experience at home, unless you have really expensive surround sound and stereo equipment and a big crew of your friends at home. For a big game to which you can’t get tickets, it’s not a bad alternative, though. At home, you can also mute the commercials and avoid the deluge of promotional giveaways that the live experience bombards you with. At the same time, however, the smells, sounds, and sights of the game just don’t translate over, even on an HD screen. The intangible waves of energy you experience when your team is doing well, in particular, also are harder to replicate at home.
--Security: This varies from game to game. Given that it was a Friday night game, I felt OK going through the lengthy procedure. It’s not airport-style, more like going to the county courthouse, and the wait was short. It can be more intrusive: at some Colorado Rockies games, they break out the metal detecting wands and do pat-downs. You avoid all of this hassle, of course, by staying home.
--Running into people you know: Weekend games bring out the crowds, so I saw a number of friends and acquaintances. I talked to a couple of old college classmates that I hadn’t seen for almost a decade. Sometimes this can be an awkward experience, however, and is more easily controlled by watching the game on TV.
--Bathrooms: Not bad if you go midway through the third quarter, apparently. No TVs inside, and I can’t even imagine going No. 2 in there, but the radio broadcast in the background kept me up to date on the game. Either I was lucky or the staff managed to keep the bathrooms surprisingly clean. Arena management also has added hand sanitizer stations and drinking fountains since the last time I was at the Moda Center. Given all of this, nothing beats being able to take a break in my own commode.
--Dealing with crowds: Needless to say, this is the biggest benefit of staying at home. The crowds can get hairy at live events, especially when walking the main hallways. Patience is the key, as well as staying alert. Taking the stairs yields reduced wait time, less crowds, and more exercise, which is nice after I sit in an uncomfortable chair for the better part of 2 ½ hours. Arriving early and leaving a little bit after the crowd are also good ideas. Then parking a distance away pays off once again. It’s nice to be able to walk past the cars piling into the lines of gridlock onto the freeway and the surface streets instead of fighting with the crowd.
The Big Picture
In my opinion, games are typically best enjoyed at home, especially if it’s a pedestrian matchup of your team versus a mediocre or lower-rung club. Arena owners and caterers don’t want to hear me say this, but the in-game experience with parking and crowds, particularly on work nights, is a time-consuming hassle. On occasion, however, for a big game or a special occasion—like my bachelor party last year—sports fans need to get off their duff and see a game in person. If you plan in advance, and pack your psychological toolkit full of both patience and a spirit of joie de vivre, chances are you can still gain value from going to the game that you would not get just watching at home. Go with a buddy or a group of friends, and turn off your damn cell phone. Be prepared to pay, and I don’t think I’d shell out for season tickets due to time and financial burden, but the occasional experience is still well worth it.