With Fewer Sellouts, NFL's Blackout Rule Under Fire

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Scott Boehm / Getty

Fans are surrounded by empty seats during a game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Aug. 15, 2009

The 2009 NFL season, which kicks off on Sept. 10 when the defending Super Bowl Champions the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennessee Titans, is ripe with intriguing story lines. After missing last season due to injury, can New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady return to Super Bowl form? After spending nearly two years in the slammer, how will Michael Vick fit into the Philadelphia Eagles' offense, not to mention society? And perhaps most puzzling of all, Why, during these historically bad economic times, is the NFL sticking it to its fans?

Granted, the league would take issue with that characterization, but it is nonetheless how many football fans feel about the so-called blackout rule. In recent years, the policy that a game would not be broadcast in a team's local market if it did not sell out its stadium 72 hours prior to kickoff — which dates to 1973, when the league feared that TV broadcasts would stop people from buying tickets — affected just a handful of games. But in the wake of the nation's worst recession in decades, as many as a dozen of the NFL's 32 markets, including Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, Jacksonville, Minnesota and San Diego, are in danger of having their local telecasts blacked out. A Jacksonville Jaguars official says it's "very possible" that none of the team's eight home games will be broadcast in the hard-hit region (by comparison, only nine of the NFL's 256 regular-season games last year were blacked out). "My worry is that if the NFL doesn't look at changing the rule, we're losing a fan base," says Richard Clark, president of the Jacksonville City Council. "I would like to think they would really, really look at those communities which are hardest hit and have an honest discussion about it, as opposed to saying this is the way we've always done things."

Clark and other football fans shouldn't hold their breath. "No consideration is being given to changing the blackout policy," says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "It has served us well for decades, and we think it would be a mistake to alter it." And as much as some local officials may be griping about it, teams aren't necessarily helping. Some teams that are facing the prospect of blackouts haven't even lowered their ticket prices to entice fans. In Jacksonville, for example, the average general-admission ticket costs $57.34, a 3.7% increase from 2008, according to Team Marketing Report. The average premium seat now costs $229.17, a 15% increase over the previous year. And local network affiliates aren't necessarily upset that they have to sometimes air a different game, since more competitive teams playing can actually translate to better ratings.

If any U.S. sports league has enough leverage to squeeze its passionate fans — the NFL even blocks satellite-TV signals so bars can't broadcast the game from out of town — it's this one. Despite the recession, from 2008 through 2011, the league will have received $11.6 billion from its network-television partners. Thus, it is keeping the blackout rule to maximize lucrative game-day revenues.

Still, the league hasn't been immune to the downturn: about 160 employees in the league office, for example, were either laid off or took buyouts over the past year. "When there are empty seats at NFL games, everything around the business of the NFL has been compromised," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, who says that crucial revenues to pay players, stadium bonds and private investors are at risk. Another reason for the rule is that the league believes a full house with screaming fans enhances the television-viewing experience. "If you're watching at home and you see a lot of empty seats, you're going to start wondering to yourself, What's wrong with me? Why am I watching this when people aren't showing up?" says Neal Pilson, founder of Pilson Communications, a consulting firm, and the former president of CBS Sports.

Fans in long-suffering Detroit, however, don't need to look at the stands to know something is wrong, both with the hapless Lions and the city as a whole. With unemployment hovering around 30%, it's not easy for folks in the Motor City to shell out a few hundred bucks to attend a game and cheer on the first team in NFL history to finish the season 0-16, as the Lions did last year. So it's no surprise that the Lions are having trouble selling out their 65,000-seat stadium. But should laid-off GM workers, who just want to watch their Lions as a form of Sunday escapism, be punished for these dreadful circumstances? "We get screwed over," says Sean Yuille, a University of Michigan student who runs Pride of Detroit, a Lions fan blog.

The NFL likes to believe that the blackout rule has helped spur its incredible growth over the past few decades, but the policy does not necessarily deserve a ton of credit. Say you live in Detroit and have no plans to attend a Lions game early in the week. A few days later, you hear that if the game doesn't sell out, it won't be shown in the Detroit market. Are you really going to shell out good money so that someone else can watch it at home? "Are people really behaving that way?" asks Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. "Maybe a few dozen in each city. This notion that the blackout rule has accounted for full attendance and full stadiums is far-fetched."

The flip side, of course, is that so far there is no evidence that the blackout rule has really alienated any part of the league's huge, dedicated fan base. But if it begins to have a wider impact, frequent local blackouts could do some long-term damage to the NFL's business. In Detroit, Yuille believes that after five Lions games were blacked out last year, casual fans completely lost interest in football. "More than anything, television is a mass-market promoter of a sport," says Zimbalist. "You don't want to cut that off."