Color Commentary: Why TV Blackouts Might Cause a Black Eye for the NFL

Keith SmoothCorrespondent ISeptember 8, 2009

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 15: Fans are surrounded by empty seats during the game between the Atlanta Falcons against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 15, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Allow me to paraphrase Dennis Hopper in Speed:

"Pop quiz hotshot.  What's the single biggest story in the NFL right now?"

Is it Brett Favre? NO!

Is it Michael Vick? NO!

Is it Shawne "what the hell is he doing dating Tila Tequila" Merriman? NO!

Those are all interesting little subplots, stories that are fun to debate on message boards, chat rooms, and sports talk radio.

However, the biggest story in the National Football League is the recent announcement that a handful of teams will face TV blackouts because of dwindling ticket sales.  Last year only three teams suffered blackouts.  The Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, and the St. Louis Rams, collectively had nine blackouts.  

Expect that number to rise and expect those three teams to have plenty of company as the NFL prepares to kick off its 89th season.  The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings could very well join the Lions, Raiders, and Rams as teams who face the increasing likelihood of having their fans unable to watch some of their home games because they aren't sold out.

And if that isn't bad enough, there's one additional team that has sold so few tickets that, in all likelihood, their fans won't be able to watch a single home game all season on local TV.

That team is the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But before I go into any further detail.  Let me make sure you guys all understand the history of the NFL's blackout policy. 

Prior to 1973, the NFL had the power to blackout any team's home game that they damn well pleased. In fact in 1958 the Baltimore Colts, led by Johnny Unitas, defeated the Frank Gifford-led New York Giants (23-17) in the NFL Championship Game.  This game was so incredible, it was quickly given a nickname: The Greatest Game Ever Played.  The estimated audience for this game was 45 million.

But did the NFL televise the game in New York City?

As you may have already guessed, the answer is no.  The game wasn't televised in the Big Apple because it wasn't a sellout.  In fact it pretty much sucked to be a Giants fan in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s because their games weren't broadcast on local TV. This led to the absurd phenomenon in which thousands of New Yorkers crossed the border into Connecticut in order to watch the home games of their beloved G-Men on the Hartford affiliate WTIC.

Congress put a stop to this in 1973, requiring that the NFL impose a sell-out-your-home-game-within-72-hours-or-we-won't-televise-it policy.  

This law has stood tall for 36 years without a whole lot of public griping from the NFL owners, with the exception of Raiders owner Al Davis who constantly complains about everything.

However, this rule will likely become a big issue this season thanks to the grim prospects of the NFL teams I mentioned earlier.  And this leads to a big question:

"Should the NFL abolish its blackout policy?"

I personally was not even aware of this policy until I moved to Atlanta three years ago.  I remember when I first moved there I used to visit a neighbor of mine named Mr. Alvin who, like me, was a big NFL fan.  Some of the home games for the Atlanta Falcons didn't sell out.  Sometimes I would go over to his house on Sunday afternoons to watch NFL football and not only were the Falcons blacked out, but we couldn't watch any other NFL games either. 

As part of that Congress-enforced agreement, the NFL was allowed to prohibit any other games from airing while the local city's home games were blacked out.  

So imagine me going to watch NFL football (far and away my single favorite American sport) and instead being forced to watch old reruns of Bonanza!

I never had to experience anything like that because, growing up in a Washington Redskin market, I was guaranteed to watch my team play every week.  This is because the Redskins have been selling out home games for as long as I've been alive.

But this year, there seems to be a lot of noise coming from owners, sportswriters, and fans who think the NFL, in light of our current economic nightmare, is being a wee bit draconian in their refusal to tweak the rules of their blackout policy.

Imagine if you were a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  The Jags will sell out exactly zero home games this year.  This means that fans who won't go to see the team in person will not be able to watch them play a home game.  Jacksonville, the largest city in our fourth largest state, will have Jaguar-free-TV eight times this season.  Its a scenario that takes us back to the days of Giant fans flocking north of the (state) border.

The biggest factor is, without a doubt, our crappy economy.  On Friday, a report was released that said that the current unemployment level in America is an eye-gouging 9.7% which is the highest rate we've seen in 26 years.  

Jacksonville, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are blue-collar cities so its understandable if the wallets of their fan-bases are light.  And its also understandable that people think that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should, for the lack of a better expression, "have a heart."

But I'm on the side of the Commish and before you fans start dropping F' bombs, consider this.

The economic situation is the same everywhere.  This isn't a Florida recession and this isn't a Midwest recession.  It's an American recession.  We are ALL suffering.  

Pittsburgh is the bluest of blue-collar cities and they're suffering.  But, economy be damned, the Steelers sell out every year.  So do Indianapolis, Houston, Seattle, Denver, Green Bay and many other franchises. 

Hurricane Katrina was one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.  It utterly destroyed New Orleans.  And yet, four years later, with much of that city still in ruins, the Saints still sell out every game.

The Dallas Cowboys just opened a massive new stadium.  It has a scoreboard so big that air traffic controllers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport can pick it up on their radar screens. Even with an increase in ticket prices in this awful economy, the Cowboys will sell out every game this season.

The reality is that, in Jacksonville, NFL football is a distant second.  College football reigns supreme down there.  The local airwaves are dominated by the Florida Gators. And the reality is that even during good economic times the Jags have trouble selling seats.  

As for the other teams:

The Raiders are one of the worst-run organizations in professional sports.  They have a 24-72 record since 2006.  

Ditto for the Cincinnati Bengals.  They have a 58-86 record this decade.  My buddy Chip is a die-hard Bengals fans.  Let's just say he's not expecting much from his beloved team this season.

After three years of the Brady Quinn-Derek Anderson conundrum, the Cleveland Browns still have no real idea who their quarterback is.  Oh, and the Browns are 52-92 this decade.

Can you blame the fans for staying home?

The only team I feel sorry for is Detroit which has suffered an economic-Katrina. When the American auto industry crumbled, it took an American city with it.  The Motor City was sometimes a scary place to visit during good economic times.  Now with the cost of a home in the $20,000 range, with dozens of neighborhoods deserted, and with crime soaring, Detroit is a bleak and desolate urban landscape.  For Lions fans to not be able to watch their team at home seems especially cruel.

And then you have the troubling situation in San Diego.  The Chargers are a legit Super Bowl contender. The problem is that San Diego is the exact opposite of Detroit.

It's one of the prettiest cities in North America: the weather, the women, the beaches.  San Diegans simply prefer to not sit in decrepit Qualcomm Stadium to watch a football game when there are a million other things to do in their beautiful city.

Basically it comes down to this.  Some fans just care more and that's likely tied directly to the performance of their respective teams.  With the exception of the Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings, the other teams that are having trouble selling tickets have an inferior product.  And because sports fans are consumers, team owners shouldn't expect to make money from their customers if their product stinks.

So why won't the NFL tinker with its 36-year-old policy because a few teams are struggling?  

Because they are in the business of making money.  And this is an economic model that has worked and you don't throw it away because some people think its unfair.  

If Goodell lifts this blackout policy, he would basically be inviting fans to stay at home and watch the games on TV.  Its just not good for business.

And if Mike Florio from The Sporting News is right, the league might be considering offering games on pay-per-view in the next few years.  If that's the case, and if that's the real reason they aren't lifting this policy, then the ripples in the water that this controversy is causing is only a prelude to a tidal wave to come.


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