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Dear NFL, Respect your Stakeholders: End the Blackout Policy

NFL Television

By Christian Moore

As the 2014 wild card playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals crept closer, serious concerns arose as to whether the Cincinnati faithful would have the opportunity to root for their Bengals on television. Owing to a policy that dates back to the early days of NFL live broadcasting, the NFL reserves the right to restrict television providers from airing football games in home networks that have not sold out their stadiums. While both the NFL and The National Association of Broadcasters continue to support this rule, public opinion, taxpayer circumstances, and statistical evidence highlight its absurdity. Although Cincinnati networks were eventually permitted to air the playoff game, thanks to a last minute ticket buying effort by Proctor & Gamble, it is unreasonable and unfair that such an important game was nearly blacked out to the home team’s biggest fans. In the National Football League, the most important stakeholders are the fans: a fact that the league needs to respect by repealing its outdated blackout policy.

The NFL “blackout policy,” as it has been coined, stems from the earliest days of television broadcasting. While airing games on TV brought the sport to a much wider audience, it also gave fans the option of saving the time and money required to attend a game live by staying in and watching the game from home. Due to these concerns, up until 1973, all home games were blacked out to local viewers. It was not until President Nixon personally protested the policy to the NFL during the 1972-1973 playoffs that the old rule was finally adjusted. Starting in 1973, home games could be broadcasted on local networks under the condition that the stadium tickets for the games were sold out. In 2012, the policy was adjusted once more for teams to set a benchmark between 85% and 100% of stadium capacity that had to be filled in order to prevent a blackout. The consequence of this regulation is that any ticket sales above the set benchmark are subject to higher revenue sharing with the NFL.

In markets such as our own in Philadelphia, where the Eagles haven’t had a local blackout since 1999, the blackout rule has little presence in the public eye. However, both The NFL and the National Association of Broadcasters have attempted to argue that the policy should be maintained throughout the NFL for several reasons. Firstly, the NFL claims that “the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.” The suggestion that it is important to keep games “attractive” on television is unfounded and a poor appeal to viewers. Fans care much more about the quality of a game than the quality of the stadium’s crowd and would prefer to watch a game on TV with no one in the stadium than not having the option of watching the game at all. Furthermore, the National Association of Broadcasters has threatened that doing away with the blackout rule may lead games to be broadcasted on a pay platform, similar to the current systems used to watch WWE and boxing fights. This argument holds little weight as well, as it would be unprecedented for a major league sport to operate on such a platform. The NFL cannot afford to make this move and risk the substantial drop in popularity that the sport has enjoyed.

From politicians, to columnists, to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the protestors to the NFL’s policy are many and outspoken. The first – and possibly the most notable – challenge to the policy came with President Nixon’s personal frustration with the league when his beloved Redskins were to have their playoff game blacked out in 1972. More recently, Senators John McCain and Richard Blumenthal have cosponsored legislation in 2012 requiring the NFL to make games available on the Internet during a local blackout. Although this bill never came to fruition, the cooperation of a Republican and Democrat on an anti-blackout stance shows that it is an issue agreed upon on both sides of the aisle. Since McCain and Blumenthal put the blackout issue back into the spotlight, other politicians, such as Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio, have taken a stance in demanding that the policy be repealed. In a petition to the FCC asking that the Bengals’ January 4th playoff game be aired whether or not the stadium sold out, Brown proclaimed: “This is unacceptable at a time when the price of attending games continues to rise and the economy is not yet where it needs to be.” The FCC has recognized Senator Brown’s argument in their own actions as they have unanimously voted to re-evaluate the policy and possibly petition the NFL to end it.

It is assuring to see lawmakers address the issue of the existence of the NFL blackout policy. As an organization, the NFL now has the responsibility to recognize who their most important stakeholders are, the fans, and to eliminate this outdated rule in an adjustment to our modern era. The blackout policy makes no sense because fans are already financial contributors to NFL stadiums, whether or not they go to games. Each year, the NFL benefits directly from millions of dollars of tax money that goes to subsidize the cost of building and maintaining stadiums, as well as indirectly by enjoying exception from U.S. anti-trust laws. Fans who are both emotionally and financially invested in their favorite teams should not be deprived of watching their teams play on TV when they cannot afford the price-tag of today’s NFL tickets. In the past, the blackout policy has pushed fans to absurd lengths, demonstrated in one case as Giants fans would routinely commute to Hartford on Sundays to rent hotel rooms in order to watch home games during the 1960s.

Finally, from recent data, it is clear that the blackout policy has become ineffective and unnecessary. This year, only one out of the 267 games were blacked out due to low ticket sales, a great contrast from the earlier years of the policy such as during the 70s, when annual blackout rates were regularly over 50%. In addition, an end to the rule will not hurt ticket sales. Most fans today have no idea what the “blackout policy” is and do not base their decision on attending a game around it whatsoever. The NFL’s duty is to cater to its fans. The blackout policy must be abolished to put legitimacy behind this claim and respect the league’s most important stakeholders.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.

Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Rick Burtzel on Flickr.

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