The NFL’s average attendance is up 3.25 percent to 69,442 per game in 2022, the second-largest number in 19 years, according to an SBJ analysis of published box office results.
The NFL’s post-pandemic attendance surge has nearly erased a sharp decline that began at the end of the last decade after the league’s 2016 record high of 69,487. This year’s attendance total of 18.8 million surpassed the previous record, but analyzing the averages per game allows a better comparison before and after the addition of the 17th game in 2021 and the uneven distribution of home games in the new schedule.
With pandemic restrictions fully lifted in all markets and the fear of a COVID-19 extinction, growth was widespread, with 24 teams reporting gains and only six reporting declines. This is the first year since 2019 where an apples-to-apples comparison is possible, year-over-year, both because of the lack of pandemic restrictions and because no new locations have been discovered.
The top earners were the resurgent Lions (23.1%), Jaguars (10.8%) and Commanders (10.15%). The defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, up 9.8 percent, were the only team with only seven home games for official purposes since the Jan. 2 game at Buffalo was ruled a no-contest due to Bills safety Damar Hamlin. suffering from heart disease arrest. The biggest declines for a team that hasn’t played a game in an international stadium came from the Bears (-1.7%) and Panthers (-0.8%).
Broad consumer behavior and economic conditions were part of the story. Experts say most NFL tickets were sold this year in a short period after the threat of COVID-19 passed and before inflation took hold.
But the NFL also deserves respect, said Jessica Gelman, CEO of KAGR, a key data analytics provider for the league. She said the NFL has effectively addressed weaknesses in fan greed.
Leaguewide, 96.7 percent of all seats were sold, up from 95.1 percent last year and 94.6 percent in 2019, the last year before the pandemic wiped out attendance in most markets.
“What impressed me is how the NFL reaches downfield [for younger fans] while maintaining the older fan base, and it’s been successful,” Gelman said. “My concerns remain the same from pre-season, which is the rising ticket price and the most passionate, loyal fans who still have the means to be season ticket members.”
Box office attendance figures, not to be confused with ticket sales or revenue, have limitations. These generally include all tickets given out, whether sold or given away, rather than actual turnstile activity. Teams and ticketing industry veterans say there is little rigor or oversight of the methodology, which changes from time to time. For example, this year the Pittsburgh Steelers began including tickets that were given away but not used — making their numbers appear higher than in previous years when they counted actual attendees.
Also, this analysis includes five “home games” at foreign neutral sites that affect the overall results. For example, the Packers average in this analysis is down 2.3% because it includes a game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London (capacity 62,500). Counting just the eight games at Lambeau Field, the team’s average attendance per game increased by 84 fans per game, or 0.1%.
The NFL’s 2022 average per game of 69,442 is just 45 fans shy of its high mark reached in 2016 since the SBJ began tracking the data in 2004. It’s just the second time in as many years , when the average exceeds 69,000.
Growth from 2021 to 2022 appears to be linked to continued progress after emerging from the pandemic. However, in a historical context, experts agree that the opening of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas continues to be a key factor in driving the numbers higher than in 2010, when the Raiders, Chargers and Rams they played in older places.