Sports teams like to think that marquee names or slick stadiums are the secret to sell more tickets. But research by Harvard Business School Professor Karim Lakhani and Patrick Ferguson, an assistant professor at the University of Melbourne, have come to an interesting conclusion – “stadiums sell more tickets when the outcome of the game is less predictable".
Put it another way: the more evenly matched teams are on the field, the less certain the final game score, and the bigger fan interest.
Whilst their study focused on Australian football, the principles apply to any league trying to engage fans and drive game attendance.
Take the suspense out of the game and you’ll lose spectators; no-one – not even die hard fans – want to sit through a game where the results are a foregone conclusion.
The researchers studied AFL game attendance, team line-ups, injuiries, gambling trends, and performance data from 2013-2018. They found that when injuries and roster switch-ups make a win or loss seem more certain, fan interest drops off, citing attendance and wagering data. In fact, just one standard deviation increase in injury-induced outcome uncertainty drove average attendance up 11 percent, the equivalent of adding 3700 spectators.
The AFL emphasizes competitive balance and enforces rules governing player drafts, free agency, revenue sharing, salary caps, and face value ticket prices – all of which make it easier to isolate what the economists call a specific “shock” or unexpected change – in this case, injuries, Ferguson says.
Sports betting, which is legal in Australia, provided an observable measure of fans’ expectations about game outcomes.
Sports fans actually enjoy even competitions. A more evenly-matched group of teams, rather than a lop-sided competition with just a single team of superstars, may actually drive fan interest up, the paper suggests.
After all, its not easy for the average spectator to watch a match in person. “Understanding why we go to live sports tells us something more general about what makes us tick,” Ferguson says.”It tells us something about the nature of our preferences for information and entertainment; our taste for surprise and suspense.”
Read the full report from Harvard Business School