There were 16 NFL games last season that resulted in blackouts – games not broadcasted in the home team’s local market. The NFL owners approved new blackout measures in May that are designed to be beneficial to fans, and although the measure does give the teams more flexibility, the question remains, “Does it do enough?”
The previous blackout rules were that if a team was unable to sell all of its non-premium seats within 3 days of a game, then a blackout would occur in the home team’s local market, within a 75 mile radius. The new blackout measures allow teams a choice to have their games broadcast in their local markets if they sell at least 85 percent of their tickets, or to stay with the old system. The option is with the home team.
As an example, if the New York Jets are unable to sell at least 85 percent of its tickets versus the Indianapolis Colts this season, then people that live in New Jersey or downstate New York would be unable to watch that game on TV. If they sell more than 85 percent of the tickets but less than 100 percent, the option is with the Jets’ management on whether or not there is a blackout.
One reason for these blackout games is the average ticket price. According to seatgeek.com, there are 16 teams that have an average ticket price which exceeds $100. For a family of four to attend a game can easily cost over $500, limiting the fans who can afford to attend to middle to upper class Americans. With a poor economy, this is a difficult cost for many fans to bear.
The problem is worst in smaller markets, which draw from a smaller local fan base. The four teams which had blackouts last year were the Cincinnati Bengals (six games), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (five), the Buffalo Bills (three), and the San Diego Chargers (two). All of those teams are considered to be small market teams. The Bengals had six blackouts last season despite making the playoffs.
Some teams, including the Chargers, have lowered ticket prices and have announced that they will adopt the 85 percent rule to reduce the number of blackout games that affect fans in the San Diego area. But that comes with a cost. If an NFL team chooses to broadcast their game in their local market despite the game not being sold out, as the Chargers have for this season, they have to give extra money to the visiting team for any ticket that is sold above 85 percent. This creates a strange financial penalty for the home teams that are trying to protect their local fan base.
The Colts are already concerned that blackouts might occur this season after their 2-14 record last season. “We’re a small-market team, and we need people in the stadium,” Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward said. “While we value all of our fans, our first priority is to protect the investment of paying customers.”
While other sports have blackout policies, the NFL is the only major sport that ties blackouts to ticket sales. According to askmen.com, the NFL has a profit that almost doubles the next closest sports league, which is the English Premier Soccer League. In addition, the majority of NFL revenue comes from their television broadcast deal as opposed to stadium ticket sales. According to thenewsherald.com, NFL revenue is projected to increase by more than 60 percent over the next 10 years under the new TV deals that the NFL signed with ESPN, ABC, NBC, FOX and CBS.
Despite all of this, the NFL and its spokesman Brian McCarthy say “the blackout policy is selling tickets, keeping the stadiums nice and full for TV audiences and keeping the games on air.”
The NFL told the FCC last summer in a filing, “that lifting the blackout rule ‘would gut the purpose of the rule and create perverse incentives for cable and satellite companies to engage in brinkmanship tactics in order to take advantage of the proposed exception to the sports blackout rule.’”
However, Time Warner Cable and Verizon are giving financial support to the Sports Fans Coalition and some of its allies who have a petition which states that the blackout rule is “anti-consumer and anti-fan” and based on the current economy “even one blackout is one too much.”
As the season nears we will find out how many other teams follow the Chargers lead and agree to take the option of airing the games if the lower threshold is reached. The possibility of moving the threshold to 85 percent is at least a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if pressure from fans and sponsors will eventually result in elimination of the NFL’s blackout policy.
By Noah Weintraub