Many club level seats were empty in the third quarter of Sunday's final regular season home game against Oakland. One ticketholder said many fans prefer to socialize inside the club level's renovated mezzanine. Others simply stay home.
When Chiefs executive Mark Donovan arrived in Kansas City last year, he was facing a worst-case scenario. The team was mired in the worst period of losing in franchise history, the nation's economy had tanked, and work had begun on a major renovation to Arrowhead Stadium that would cost $375 million — an investment that, in part, would pay itself off with luxury seating in a high-dollar club level.
Donovan, the team's chief operating officer, watched in late 2009 as Arrowhead, known as one of America's great football venues, began emptying.
"If you look at the chain of events," he said in his office Tuesday, "we would have asked for a much different scenario. Just about everything went the way you didn't want it to go."
The Chiefs have started winning again, but attendance hasn't gotten much better. Despite 10 victories during the 2010 regular season and a division championship for the first time in seven years, attendance at Arrowhead is still suffering from a lingering hangover from those forgettable three years.
During its eight home games, the Chiefs had the lowest attendance by capacity percentage among the 12 teams that reached the NFL playoffs. According to this season's announced attendance figures, Arrowhead's crowds filled an average of 88.6 percent of its 76,416-seat capacity — far less than the next-lowest playoff team, the Seattle Seahawks, whose fans filled Qwest Field to an average of 93 percent capacity. And the Seahawks finished 7-9 and became the first franchise in league history to reach the postseason with a losing record.
All but two Chiefs games — the regular-season opener against San Diego and an October game against Jacksonville — were at less than 90 percent capacity. Attendance based on capacity percentage this season, when the Chiefs lost only one home game, was lower than two of the past three seasons, when the team combined to lose 38 games.
Donovan said the numbers have been disappointing, but he said that sports attendance is actually influenced more by what happened the previous season, rather than what has happened more recently.
This year's numbers might be down, but Donovan said the Chiefs sold more 2011 season tickets last week, as the regular season closed and the playoffs approached, than were sold throughout all of last year. All non-club level seats for the home playoff game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens have sold out as well.
"Success on the field will generate season tickets for the next season," said Donovan, who wouldn't divulge the number sold. "That's what we're seeing, and our fans have responded.
"We've been listening to our fans, and they've been speaking to us — speaking with their wallets."
The team has improved, but some of the same reasons Arrowhead hasn't been its familiar sea of red this season remain. The economy hasn't dramatically improved, and Donovan admitted that the Chiefs have seen their most significant 2011 sales boosts in the lower-priced regions of the stadium.
The team also is still relying on those high-priced tickets in the club level to not only fill Arrowhead but also keep up with teams in larger markets, which are home to more companies willing to stockpile premium tickets.
To do that, the Chiefs have made a push to keep fans who did spring for the stadium's most expensive seats. The team has offered discounts to club-level ticket holders who pledge a new three-year commitment, in an effort to prevent its most exclusive level from emptying. Donovan said two-thirds of all tickets next season will be priced the same or less than they were in 2010.
Club seats sell for upward of $225 during regular-season games and will increase to $240 next year without a recommitment. Those seats sell for as much as $253 each for this week's first-round playoff game, and if the Chiefs were to play host to the AFC championship, some club-level tickets would cost $358 apiece.
Jason Wood, 31, said he simply can't afford the high prices. Besides, he said, he doesn't care for the "martini crowd," which often socializes inside the club level's renovated mezzanine instead of watching the game. Wood said there are plenty of club-level ticket holders who simply stay home. During this past Sunday's home game against the Oakland Raiders, there were hundreds of empty club seats, mostly behind each end zone.
Wood said he received an e-mail from the Chiefs recently, offering discounts and promises of a better experience in the future. Wood, whose two club-level seats cost him $4,500 this season, said he'll continue to buy season tickets, which he has done since 2003, but he's finished with the club level.