NFL Teams Are Realizing How Dim-Witted It Is to Black Out Games on TV

NFL teams are going out of their way to avoid TV blackouts—which are an embarrassment for the local franchise and alienate fans

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

The NFL’s blackout rules are meant as a punishment when fans don’t support the local team enough to buy up home-game tickets: If a stadium isn’t at least 85% full, the game is prohibited from being shown on TV in the region. But this year, teams are going out of their way to avoid TV blackouts—which are an embarrassment for the local franchise, and which alienate fans who’ve already demonstrated they aren’t exactly diehard.

Not long before the kickoff of this week’s Monday Night Football matchup, pitting the Indianapolis Colts against the host San Diego Chargers, the prospects of the game being blacked out in the San Diego area were described as “very likely.” While four home Chargers games were blacked out last year, the local blackout of a nationally televised Monday night game is exceptionally rare. The last Monday night blackout occurred in 2000 when the Atlanta Falcons couldn’t sell enough tickets in a home game versus the San Francisco 49ers.

The NFL eventually gave the Chargers a 24-hour extension to try to sell some 9,000 tickets and thereby avoid a blackout. And the game was, in fact, shown on local TV in San Diego—not because Chargers fans scooped up thousand of seats at the last-minute, but because a group of local sponsors and ESPN (which televised the game) purchased enough tickets for the blackout to be lifted.

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While many NFL teams have no problem whatsoever selling pricey tickets for home games, other franchises struggle to win over fans and use the threat of a TV blackout to pressure them into buying tickets. Last year, a total of 15 games were blacked out in a host team’s region. Through the first six weeks of the 2013 season, however, there have been zero blackouts. Why? It’s not because fans have suddenly decided to literally take one for the team and start buying more tickets. Instead, it looks like teams have started realizing what a bad business move it is to not televise games where their best fans live.

Besides the Chargers, the Buffalo Bills were expected to have their home game blacked out this past weekend. A week ago, the Bills announced a $15 off promotion on tickets to help sell some 7,000 seats and avoid a blackout. The Bills’ team owner wound up buying several thousand tickets so that the game wouldn’t be blacked out.

From 2010 to 2012, only five of the 24 home games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were televised locally because not enough tickets were sold. But earlier this year, team ownership announced that it was stepping up to ensure that there would be no blackouts. “If fewer than 85 percent of nonpremium seats — the NFL’s threshold — are sold, the Bucs will write a check to the league to keep games in local living rooms,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. The Jacksonville Jaguars made a similar move last year to avoid TV blackouts.

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Other teams have ramped up in-stadium amenities and fun like wi-fi and 50/50 raffles—at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions—and free beer promotions as means to sell more tickets and avoid blackouts.

The push to keep games on TV seems to be driven by NFL teams waking up to the fact that the attempt to strong-arm fans into buying tickets may backfire. When the NFL tweaked its blackout rules a year ago, a pair of sports economists used the opportunity to point out that blackouts don’t boost ticket sales. “Academic research supports the conclusion that local television blackouts have little or no effect on ticket sales or attendance for the game that is being televised,” they wrote. “Local blackouts of home games harm consumers without producing a significant financial benefit to teams.”

In fact, the blackouts could cause harm to teams because fans are driven away because they can’t watch the games on TV—and also just because the blackouts are obnoxious. This is especially so because, as Sen. John McCain pointed out while introducing legislation last spring to end TV blackouts for good, most new stadiums are financed at least partially by public money. “It is unconscionable to deny those taxpayers who paid for it the ability to watch the games on television when they would otherwise be available,” said McCain.