Despite four consecutive years of declining attendance, the NFL says early signs for the 2012 season are positive.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ESPN on Friday that 90.6 percent of season-ticket holders have renewed their packages this year, surpassing last year's final renewal rate of 89.3 percent.
It's welcome news for the league's teams, whose per-game average of 64,698 fans last season was the lowest in 12 years. The decline is relative when considering that the league has sold 96 percent of all tickets in each of the past three years. Before the economy crashed in late 2008, the league had sold 99 and 98 percent of all tickets in the 2006 and 2007 seasons, respectively.
An ESPN Sports Poll taken last year revealed 29 percent of fans said they'd rather watch a game in an NFL stadium, compared to 41 percent who felt that way in 1998.
The NFL has been proactive in trying to make stadiums a more welcome place this season. Last month, the league said it would provide fans in the stands with the view of the referee when he goes under the hood to review a play on the sideline video monitor.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also has sought to improve wireless communications inside stadiums. Six teams will have Wi-Fi-enabled stadiums this season to help fans stay connected with other games and fantasy statistics while in attendance.
Only 16 of 256 NFL games were blacked out last year, meaning 93.7 percent of games were seen in their local markets -- the fifth-best season in the blackout era.
But to help the teams that are struggling at the ticket window, the league offered a flexible blackout plan for the first time. Teams could choose to lower their blackout threshold to a percentage of capacity between 85 and 100 percent. Up to that percentage point, the team would keep the usual 66 percent of game-ticket sales, with 34 percent going into the visiting teams' pooled revenue. But once attendance of a given game goes above the agreed-upon blackout threshold, the split of revenues is 50-50.
So far, the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings reportedly have taken up the league on its offer. The Raiders, Dolphins and Buccaneers chose to reduce their blackout threshold to 85 percent capacity, while the Vikings chose 90 percent.
Ticket sales are a less-important piece of the NFL business, anyway. The average NFL game was watched by 17.5 million viewers in 2011, the league's second-largest viewership since 1989. This means that of the people who watch a game, only 0.36 percent are watching it live in the stadium.
Each team made $102.5 million in national television revenue last year, according to financial statements released by the Green Bay Packers, which is roughly double what the average team makes each year in ticket sales. The divide between TV revenue and ticket revenue will only increase as the league begins its new TV deals in 2014.
Darren Rovell is ESPN's sports business insider.