Antiquated NFL Blackout Rule Looms Over 2009 Season

Dating back to a time when team owners felt TV viewership cannibalized ticket sales, the NFL blackout rule is now a legacy, antiquated rule that the league should revisit. The rule essentially states that if a team does not sell out (or reach a certain number of tickets sold) a home game, the networks black out the game in the local market, defined as a 75-mile area around the stadium.

Darren Rovell penned a good piece that highlights the significant decrease in blackouts the past few years, relative to previous decades. Given the severity of the economic recession and the pressure on teams to increase prices to cover increased player salary expenses that trend may see a detrimental reverse, as many teams struggle to move ticket inventory. Since so few games have been blacked out in recent years, an influx of blackouts could surprise the fans and create negative reaction.

The NFL owes national much of its ascent to the top of the US sports ladder to national television. Sunday afternoon is appointment viewing for many fans. The broad reach and compelling action attract big audiences week after week. Fans develop loyalty to the home teams and they become more entrenched in the sport. Taking away that television exposure at a local level takes away the teams and the leagues best marketing tool. Not having the local team in front of fans week in and week out risks losing the casual fan to other sports or entertainment venues, and risks turning away some of the die hard fans in anger. Especially given the availability of a wide range of alternatives that did not exist when this rule was created, the NFL would be mistaken to risk any portion of its fan base.

First, its proven over years that showing games locally does not directly cannibalize ticket sales. In fact, arguably it helps boost sales by marketing the teams to potential customers. Ask the Chicago Blackhawks. Second, and more important, its less fans choosing not to buy tickets, and more fans forced to cutback on discretionary expenditures due to the severe economic conditions. As the NFL, do you want to be in the business of saying, we know its expensive to attend one of your games and that you may be unemployed, but if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t watch your favorite team. If anything the league should be finding more affordable ways to accommodate fans priced out of the stadium that are die hard fans and want more than a TV in the living room type experience.

If the league were to blackout games in any big football market, New York for example, its TV partners that pay billions in rights fees, would suffer from significant ad sales losses. NFL football is one of the top rated programs on TV. Ratings in local markets are magnitudes higher than over ratings, making ad time more valuable in those markets, black outs would strip TV sales teams of this audience. Further, if it’s a big market, it can significantly damage the national value of the ad inventory.

At a time when the NFL faces a potential work stoppage and numerous negative off-field publicity it to maintain focus on retaining its current core fan base. Blacking out local games could slow down the gravy train the NFL has rode the past few years, especially at a time when teams are pricing fans out of the stadium, not fans choosing to stay home. Widespread black outs would be a slap in the face to fans, and certainly hurt the NFL as a brand.

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