NFL Blackouts Come Under Scrutiny

Published March 7, 2012

The National Football League blacked out 16 games during the 2011 regular season, once again bringing up the question of whether the blackout rule is needed.

The Washington, DC-based Sports Fans Coalition, the Washington-based policy groups Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, and the National Consumer League have a joint petition pending before the Federal Communications Commission seeking to end the blackout rule.

The number of blacked out games in the last year was lower than in the previous year but would have been much higher had advertising and broadcast partners not intervened by buying up blocks of tickets to keep some games on the air. The number of blacked-out NFL games also decreased in 2010.

Taxpayers Foot Stadium Bills
Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in a team’s home city, on the theory the policy would increase attendance and boost owners’ profits (from ticket sales, concessions, parking, etc.), even though the initiation of local broadcasting of other sports had been shown to increase attendance.

In September 1973, by a 76-6 vote, the U.S. Senate moved to ban television blackouts of professional sport games that sell out 72 hours or more before the event, and the NFL complied. At the time, the revised blackout rule was thought to protect the interests of owners, many of whom had borne the expense of building and maintaining stadiums.

In the last several years, however, taxpayers have subsidized the building, refurbishing, and many of the other capital expenses of professional sports stadiums, bringing up the question of their rights to view all the games, most of which sell out even without last-minute block ticket purchases. In some cases, as in Minnesota, taxpayers have subsidizeed multiple stadiums since the 1973 rule was put into place.

No Baseball, Basketball Blackouts
There is evidence the broadcasting of games would have little negative effect, and perhaps even a positive influence, on actual attendance.

“Teams have long been afraid of the effect of television and radio on attendance, but the NFL’S policy today is archaic and possibly ineffective,” said Eldon Horn, adjunct professor of sports, law, and society at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Baseball owners were terrified of radio, but they learned in the 1920s that radio broadcasts billboard games and increase attendance by stirring fan interest. The New York teams tried to keep baseball off radio for five years in the 1930s, but the Cubs learned in 1925 that radio can dramatically increase attendance. You will note there is no baseball or basketball blackout rule today.”

More recently, the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks began broadcasting home games, and maintained sellouts of nearly every game.

“No doubt the NFL would like to avoid the embarrassment of showing empty stadiums on TV like with the [National Basketball Association’s] Detroit Pistons who now play before an almost empty arena,” Horn explained. “Even so, declaring war on the fans and sponsors is not likely to be productive in the long run.”

Strong Status-Quo Motives
Another, albeit, weaker argument for the blackouts, according to Horn, is that any attendance boost from the threat of blackouts may enhance a team’s valuation in the event of a sale. However, Horne says any such potential increase has to be viewed in the light of the attendance-increasing success of broadcasts of other professional sports.

Any change is likely to be slow in coming, says Richard Gentile, a professor at the Seton Hall University Center for Sports Management.

“Viewers are disenfranchised, but the teams will fight to the death for their right to sell tickets in their home markets,” said Gentile.

“The great irony, of course, is that the league represents the franchise owners in bargaining for higher-and-higher TV rights agreements,” he added. “As lucrative as those deals have become, the teams continue to preserve the right to blackout the home market if there is not a sellout. Why? Because they can. As long as the networks don’t complain—and the networks don’t complain about very much where the NFL is concerned—the status quo will remain in effect.”
Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.