TAMPA The National Football League faces a powerful adversary that is constantly evolving.
The predator? Modern technology.
The NFL has seen regular-season attendance diminish in each of the past three years after reaching an all-time peak in 2007.
While a harsh national economy is certainly a key factor, the drop at the turnstiles is also a reflection on how alluring pro football can be as a televised sport, especially in today's high-definition world.
"It's hard to duplicate in the stadium what NFL fans are getting at home,'' said FOX analyst and former NFL defensive tackle Tim Ryan. "Do you put little screens in the back of every seat in the stadium, so now it's like sitting on a Jet Blue plane? You push the button and you can change the camera angle? Somehow, they've got to make going to a game more of an event.''
Unlike hockey, football has always televised well.
The rise of HD and more affordable big-screen TVs, coupled with the advent of NFL Sunday Ticket, makes it very seductive for pro football fans to watch games in the comfort of their living rooms instead of cheering from Section 305.
NFL executives are well aware of the challenges ahead.
"The experience at home on a high-definition television with super slo-mo and that great technology makes that experience wonderful,'' acknowledged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. "We're also trying to get people to come into our stadiums and enjoy the game. We have to put money into stadiums to make sure that the digital opportunities are available.''
The rising popularity of fantasy football leagues is making it more incumbent on NFL teams to provide quick and easy stadium access to information on other games.
Fans want real-time updates -- whether they're sitting in the lower deck at the Georgia Dome on a fall Sunday or relaxing on a recliner in the suburbs of Charlotte.
For Bucs center Jeff Faine, there's something about watching a big-time sports event in person that technology can't duplicate – no matter how many pixels you've got.
"I watched the Cubs play in Wrigley Field this summer and it was an amazing experience,'' said Faine. "You can't match the in-game experience. At the same time, there's something to be said for the quality of the production that the media puts into NFL games. You're sitting in the comfort of your own couch, your beverage is a lot cheaper and you don't have to deal with traffic. That's tough to compete against.''
Enhancing the in-game experience has emerged as a priority for Goodell, especially given the economic struggles that have chipped away at disposable income.
Besides dueling other sports leagues for the shrinking entertainment dollar, NFL clubs are also waging a continual fight against advances in technology and an array of creature comforts that provide fans with a compelling case to stay home.
"It may be more comfortable, but it's not more exciting,'' Goodell said of watching NFL games on television. "The issue for us is we are our own competitor in that sense. Our challenge is to continue to make it exciting for people to come to our facility. We as a league are focused on it.''
Innovation at stadiums is only part of the answer for Goodell, who also wants to improve fan conduct, making the atmosphere at facilities more wholesome for families.
Beating back the challenges of rival leagues over the years has proven the NFL knows how to prepare for battle.
"For kids that have never been to a football game, they want to be there,'' Faine said. "That experience on game day is irreplaceable. Still, the economy is what it is. For the average fan, it might come down to going to the game or buying groceries. As a player, obviously you want to see all the stands filled. It's a complicated issue.''
Attendance has dropped in the NFL since record crowds turned out in 2007.
NFL PAID ATTENDANCE
Year ; Average
Source: NFL Record & Fact Book