EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Little kids bounce around on inflatables. Teenagers rock to a local band. Huge screens showing sports from around the country, and celebrities signing autographs.
A fair or theme park? Try MetLife Stadium before an NFL game.
Many hardcore NFL fans prefer watching at home or in sports bar, where they can watch multiple games on huge screens and keep track of their fantasy stats or gambling results. The league is trying to bring more people to stadiums by turning games into all-day events.
"We have a tremendous TV product and it has been getting better over a long period of time, so the great news for the NFL is to be competing with ourselves," says Brian Lafemina, the league's senior vice president of club business development. "Teams have been innovating and creating better game-day experience over the past several years. We've stopped thinking about programming a football game and instead we're focusing on making it a five-to-six-hour, driveway-to-driveway experience."
It's particularly important families who want to get their money's worth out of expensive tickets.
"This is a great draw to come in to the stadium early; it will motivate people to want to do more than tailgate and then go into the game," says Jets fan Duane Tomaszewski of Albertson, New York. "Meeting ex-Jets, the playground for kids, it's sure better than having them dodging cars in the parking lot."
The New Jersey stadium used by the Jets and Giants was built with the fans in mind. Between the parking lot and the seats, fans walk through MetLife Plaza, where they can eat, play, dance and watch big screens.
"We have a huge parking area where the fans tailgate, some of them right until game time, and that's always been a big part of the experience," Jets President Neil Glat says.
"But we encourage them to spend time in the plaza, particularly if they are bringing along children. We have the kids' area, ESPN broadcasts, food sampling of all kinds."
The other 30 NFL teams are trying to create similar experiences.
Baltimore has the Ravens Walk, which has become so popular that some fans without tickets will come to the stadium simply to take part, then head elsewhere to watch the game. Fans can talk to cheerleaders, listen to bands or get a photo "Poe" the mascot. Sponsors set up booths, including Verizon so fans can recharge their devices and stay connected.
"It's really special to a lot of us who endured life without football for 13 years, and to now have this game-day experience we didn't have for those years," says Ravens season ticket holder Francis Preroff of Towson, Maryland. "It's like a celebration of football, with music, vendors, activities."
When Baltimore plays a late game, the Ravens will put earlier contests on jumbo screens.
"I was speaking with one of our fans on Saturday," says Brad Downs, the Ravens' vice president of marketing. "He and a group of people make the three-hour drive from Ocean City, and they arrive early and it's become a ritual to be a part of what we have."
Since 2013, Jacksonville fans have enjoyed the "Prowl." The team walks through a wall of fans from the locker room to the field for pregame introductions.
Once fans get inside any of the NFL's 31 stadiums, they obviously want their team to win. But they want much more on the way to that victory. Even in Dallas, with an innovative stadium and one of the biggest screens in the world, fans always expect more.
"How do we create an authentic, unique experience that can't be replicated at home?" asks Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys' executive vice president and chief brand officer. "Our big board did most of that for us, it really reinvented the way you experience a game as an engaging interactive. But our programming we start from the time you park your car. We even direct you to avoid the traffic and to the best location for your parking area with our app."
Once parked, fans have plenty of choices. A music corral with live bands, a play area and, of course, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
The players control the outcome of the game, but team officials want fans to enjoy the day no matter what the score.
"We're absolutely focused on the best experience in our stadium, but the first thing the fans want is to see a Giants win," says Giants vice president of sales and marketing Kevin Frattura. "We can't control that, but we can control what is available around the stadium, what they are doing during breaks and timeouts, and before they come through the gates."
This summer, before preseason games and even prior to a Jets evening practice, MetLife Plaza was packed well before kickoff. Perhaps the most popular spot was the Snoopy statue, where fans stopped to take photos.
Scott and Kathleen Riker of Hawthorne, New Jersey, and daughters Alexa and Melissa have created a tradition by using Snoopy as a measuring stick.
"I've watched her grow up with the team and the stadium," mom says of 9-year-old Alexa. "Every year, she takes a picture with Snoopy and we can see how much she is growing."
Frattura watches such sights with a wide smile.
"Whatever we can provide as an enhancement that is part of the tradition of the Giants, we do," Frattura says, "so that the fan, young or adult, asks, 'When can we come back?'"
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