As the NFL prepares to enter its second round of playoff games, there is one story from the wild card round that seems important to bring up again—the NFL's "blackout rule".
Under current NFL contracts, any home game that is not sold out by 72 hours before kickoff is subsequently unavailable on television within a 75 mile area of the home city. The rule applies to both local and cable channels, and even subscribers to the NFL's gluttonous Sunday Ticket package on DirecTV are effected.
Last week two teams, the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, required extensions from the NFL in order to sell out all their tickets and avoid having their home playoff games blacked out to the Twin Cities and Phoenix areas respectively.
I for one think it's time that the NFL at the very least suspend their policy on blackouts.
Last week, as the Vikings struggled to sell the remaining tickets to the wild card game against the Eagles, star DE Jared Allen made a plea to Vikes fans to gobble up the remaining tickets and ensure that the game would be broadcast.
With all due respect to Allen, one of my favorite players and by all accounts a very decent guy, it feels a little strange to watch a man that is paid in the eight-figures to ask struggling workers to spend money on tickets, when the face value doesn't account for incidentals like travel, food, and parking (and anyone that has been to the Metrodome will tell you parking isn't cheap).
The NFL has to accept the fact that it brought this rash of non-sell outs upon itself.
The greatest thing the NFL did was to make itself the most watchable game from home in sports. With fantasy football, Sunday Ticket, and the wave of high def televisions, the NFL is becoming a communal event. People can have friends and family over on Sundays and share some food and drinks and watch their favorite team. No other sport lends itself to this once-a-week type of event.
Still, with a struggling economy and hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, the NFL expects, nay demands, that it sell out every game or the fans are punished.
For some people the three hours they get to spend watching their favorite team may be the only respite from what is becoming one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
I know people that spend every free moment talking about their teams, they know the history back and front, every player, every play, they own a closet full of jerseys, but for whatever reason they just aren't that interested in actually going to the stadium. Maybe they like sleeping in on Sundays, maybe they hate traffic, whatever, it's their business. And yet the NFL has made it their business as well.
To the credit of the Vikings and Cardinals fans, they did buy the tickets, and the games did air. But what happens if the recession continues? Sure teams like the Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, etc. will sell out every game, but what about the rest of the league?
There are going to be a lot of people struggling just to get by in the next few years, struggling to feed their kids, pay the rent, put gas in the car. It doesn't seem too much that they ask for their favorite team to be on three hours a week.
The NFL is a juggernaut in world sports right now. The league, even in a down economy, is still the most solvent, financially stable entity in professional sports. It has maybe the most rabid, informed, passionate fan base; not to mention it still brings in the casual viewer better than any professional league.
Yet, the NFL remains stubborn in their blackout rule, as well as any number of other rules that don't make sense for a league that is as popular as any in the history of American sports (ex. churches and other social gatherings not able to hold official Super Bowl parties).
I realize that the NFL is a business, and it is going to operate the way that maximizes profit, but at what cost?
With all the bad news in the sports economy, and the economy in general, what better move could the NFL make than to say—for the next year or two the blackout rule is rescinded. We trust our fan base to remain passionate and active, even if attending games is not a possibility financially.
This argument is probably more heartfelt than headstrong, thus making it poor business. But as an NFL fan I think the league has a unique opportunity to bring in a wave of good publicity, grab some new fans, and remind old fans why they love the league in the first place even as the headlines are grabbed by stories about drug abuse, arms possession, dog fighting, physical assault, etc.
The NFL has made itself into a weekly family event, why not embrace that instead of fighting it?