Facing a visible increase in the number of empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens officials on Monday trumpeted the completion of a three-year, $120 million renovation project.
Team officials say the changes, aimed at improving the fan experience, should help drive fans off the couch and into the stadium. At least one sports economist sees the potential for more revenue per fan, as well.
The latest phase included adding more escalators and elevators as well as “Corner Notch” suite and party areas into the open notches of the upper bowl, with video boards above the suites. Upgrades were made to the club level, kitchens and sound systems.
The 16 new escalators were added to the 500 level to address long-standing complaints from fans. Ravens President Dick Cass said they will help longtime season ticket holders who find they are not as young as they were when they bought their seats.
“I think the upper-bowl experience will be enhanced,” he said.
LED sports lighting has been added in a project that the Maryland Stadium Authority funded. The lights are more energy-efficient and can be instantly switched on and off, similar to how a light switch can control all the lights in a living room at once. The Ravens are one of the first teams in the league to install these lights, said Roy Sommerhof, the senior vice president of stadium operations.
“You’ll certainly see them and what they can do Saturday,” Sommerhof said of the team’s stadium practice at 6 p.m.
Phase one was completed before the 2017 season. It included the addition of two 4K ultra-high definition video displays, as well as more audio and video equipment for better replays.
“I think, when we’ve made these improvements, it’s beginning to show in the way the fans have reacted to what we have done,” Cass said.
After the first phase, the Ravens earned the No. 2 overall fan experience ranking in 2018 from Stadium Journey, a publication that reviews stadiums around the world.
After each game, fans at all the NFL stadiums can participate in “Voice of the Fan Polls,” Cass said. The Ravens ranked No. 2 in the Food and Beverage, Stadium Technology, Video Board Content and External Pre-Game Content sections.
They ranked No. 4 in Instant Replay/Highlights and No. 5 in In-Game Statistics.
“With that ranking comes a great challenge, and we are challenged this year to be even better,” said Jay O’Brien, the Ravens’ vice president of broadcasting and gameday productions.
In recent years, empty seats have become regular sights at Ravens games. After players knelt during the national anthem at a game in London in 2017, fans voted with their feet: M&T stadium was at times half- or three-quarters full on game day. Last season, the team announced sellouts for each home game — but thousands of seats sat unfilled, and the team still advertised tickets on digital, TV and print media.
O’Brien said team officials have taken all the fan feedback into consideration as they upgraded their system. The replay system should rival what fans see on TV, Cass said.
The new renovations are partially aimed at drawing fans away from their couches and TVs and into the stadiums, which is a league-wide struggle, Cass said.
Gus Fotinos, 40, of Greektown, who’s been a fan since the Ravens came to Baltimore, said when he has attended games in the past, he has often wished there were better replays shown.
“Sometimes they don’t get good angles like you see on TV, and you can’t really see it up close,” said Fotinos, who goes to two to three games a year.
By investing in a sky-cam and 4k HD cameras, the stadium will be able to compare to what broadcasting outlets provide, Cass said. The new screens on the notches will provide in-game statistics on one end and statistics from other games around the league on the other.
“And of course, nothing can match the atmosphere and excitement of a stadium,” Cass said.
Although attendance is down in the league, it’s still high, especially considering stadiums are getting smaller and selling fewer tickets for more money, said Richard Noll, an economics professor at Stanford University. TV ratings aren’t going up, either, he noted, so lowered attendance isn’t because of fans choosing a screen over an in-person experience.
Instead, renovations are usually about “inducing fans to spend money" while they’re at the stadium, Noll said. With the “gameday enhancements” happening around the league, Noll said, teams are making more money per fan than they used to.
The Ravens’ improved kitchen facilities and new menu items this fall, such as a buffalo chicken burger and Chesapeake hot dog, might serve this purpose by convincing hungry fans to spend more money during the game.
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In addition to the three-year project, the Ravens have also invested millions in upgrading M&T Bank Stadium’s wi-fi over the offseason. It was originally installed in 2015.
“Every time we improve it once, people start using it more, and we have to improve it again,” Cass said. “I don’t know if that process will ever end.”
As someone who participates in fantasy football, Fotinos said he’s had trouble accessing statistics from other games while in the stadium.
“The wi-fi was an issue,” Fotinos said.
The new screens with in-game and out-of-game stats will eliminate the need to check his phone for stats, and he’ll also be able to post on social media from the stadium now, he said.