The NFL’s TV blackout rule states that if stadium seats for a given game are not sold out, television coverage in the local area (defined as broadcast signals reaching within a 75 mile radius) shall be blacked out. This is a simplification of the rule, which has been around since 1972; there are many ifs, ands, and buts inserted by whichever high priced Park Avenue law firm the NFL retains for rule obfuscation. The idea is that if the game can be seen via TV, people won’t buy the remaining seats. I contend that in this economy, stadiums in some markets might never sell out, and the more blackouts there are, the worse it will get.
Consider the past Sunday. As you might or might not know, I’m a displaced Pittsburgher who has long been a Steelers fan. On Sunday the Steelers were playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa. I’m in the Orlando area, approximately 85 miles as the Raven flies from Raymond James Stadium. However, the way the rule reads, the Orlando TV channels cover part of that 75-mile radius circle around the stadium. The game did not sell out despite heavy ticket sales to Steelers fans (one Tampa Bay player said it looked to be about half and half) and a base of 40,000 season tickets, therefore it was blacked out for me. I wound up listening to the 1 PM game on the radio. Meanwhile, the hated Philadelphia Eagles were playing in Jacksonville at 4:30. At least, I thought, I would be able to cheer on the Jaguars as they throttled the Eagles. No such luck. Alltel Stadium is 113 miles from my house, but there’s that signal penetration thing going on, I suppose.
But there’s more. I have DirecTV, and one—if not the—reason I do is that the satellite TV company has an exclusive deal with the NFL to broadcast all the in- and out-of-market 1:00 and 4:30 games each Sunday. Aside from the non-sports entertainment portion of their charges, I pay an additional $350 per year for the NFL Sunday Ticket package. The NFL sucks off a portion of that annual fee as well as whatever extortion DirecTV pays them to maintain exclusivity of the NFL package. They’re being compensated quite well by us morons who demand to see every game. Only thing is, we’re not seeing every game, because the blackout rule is applied whether we’ve purchased the Sunday Ticket or not. I don’t think I need to tell you that we don’t get billing credit for blacked out games. So, even with this extra expenditure, I didn’t get to watch either game.
Naturally, the NFL would like to fill all its stadium seats. It not only wants the bucks from ticket sales, but also, it wants stadiums to look full for people watching from afar, thus enhancing the appeal of attending live games. The obvious purpose of the blackout rule was to make certain that people had no other way to see a “local” game if they didn’t buy a ticket.
Would I have bought a ticket for the Tampa Bay game at $120? Perhaps, but if I was going to take Jenny and two kids, it wasn’t going to happen, especially since the kids aren’t big sports fans. Would I have attended the Jacksonville game in person? Hell, no!
Perhaps the NFL doesn’t understand that in this recessionary economy, people tend to ditch the frivolous extras first. You take a team like Tampa Bay, whose record was 3-13 last year, and you feel damn lucky that there are 40,000 suckers with season tickets, because your ticket window sales are going to plummet. Start pissing people off in the local area (which apparently is more like a 150-mile radius) and you’ll depress future sales, too. Jacksonville is one of the smallest media markets in the NFL and they’re not doing well at all. They’ve even cordoned off whole sections at Alltel Stadium to reduce its capacity in view of the sellout rule (the NFL requires that if you do this for one game, you have to do it for all games, including the playoffs), but still they get blacked out. Better they should get some local TV revenue than trying in vain to sell tickets.
I know that for the NFL it sounds a lot like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, but shouldn’t a league that is raking in money hand over fist (including over $20 billion in TV revenue) be a little more sensitive to the economic plight of the typical football fan? Either reduce ticket prices or ease up on the blackouts, but how about taking a hit like the rest of us?