Why Millions of NFL Fans Might Not Be Able to Watch Their Team’s Playoff Games

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Nam Y. Huh / AP

Due to decades-old blackout rules, fans in three regions hosting NFL playoff games this weekend may not be able to see their teams on TV—including the squad that has probably the league’s most loyal fan base, the Green Bay Packers.

This weekend, four NFL playoff games are scheduled. As of Thursday morning, only one playoff host city (Philadelphia) had posted a ticket sellout. If the other three host stadiums—in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Green Bay—fail to sell out, the games won’t be aired on local TV, per blackout policies adopted four decades ago to encourage fans to buy tickets.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that blackout rules are stupid and counterproductive because the league makes most of its money from TV contracts, and also because the taxpayers in host cities who pay billions to build stadiums should at least be able to benefit by being able to watch games from the comfort of their own homes. It seems unwise to alienate and annoy the folks who constitute the local fan base. And it looks like the FCC and the league will drop blackout policies in the near future.

For now, however, fans are facing the beyond-frustrating possibility of having their teams make the playoffs and host a game (yeah!) and yet not being able to see the game on TV (boo!). Because the playoff schedule wasn’t finalized until this past weekend’s games had ended, NFL franchises have had to try to market and sell tickets on the quick. Cold, snowy weather and the general chaos around the holidays, combined with tickets that cost a pretty penny have added to the difficulty of convincing fans to splurge on seats for this weekend’s games.

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The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that in hosting a (very rare) playoff game on Sunday, the Bengals stand to bring in as much as $14 million in total revenues for the city, including hotel rooms, parking, bar and restaurant tabs, and money spent at Paul Brown Stadium. Even though local businesses and fans are clearly excited, the Enquirer also noted (as of Tuesday) that the Bengals “don’t expect Sunday’s game against San Diego to sell out unless there’s a last-minute surge from the general public or concentrated effort by the business community to fill the stadium.”

In Indianapolis, Colts fans are facing a sellout deadline of 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. According to the Indianapolis Star, the team still had to sell roughly 5,000 tickets in order to avoid a local TV blackout.

Even the Green Bay Packers, which are the only community-owned franchise in major pro American sports, are at risk of a TV blackout. A Green Bay Press Gazette column, which called the idea of a playoff game blackout “unthinkable” and “baffling,” pointed to a number of reasons the game hasn’t sold out, including an up-and-down season with quarterback Aaron Rodgers injured much of the time, the addition of 7,000 more seats at Lambeau Field, and a new no-refund playoff ticket policy that automatically applied unused funds to next year’s season tickets. There’s also this:

“It’s understandable that instead of shelling out between $102 and $125 for a ticket to the deep freeze, a fan would rather watch the game from the comfort of a warm living room sofa on a high-definition, big-screen TV.”

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The threat of a blackout is supposed to push fans into getting off their butts and buying seats, and surely the impending deadlines will prod some into opening their wallets. Even so, it’s in the interests of host franchises and cities and the NFL as a whole to avoid angering fans. That’s why varying interests may wind up scooping up whatever tickets remain at the last minute and donating them to organizations that will distribute them to fans. Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has done extensive research on the business of sports, told the Cincinnati Enquirer there’s a strong possibility of that scenario taking place. He also pointed out that if any blackouts do occur, there are likely to be consequences in addition to much fan frustration:

“If they don’t sell out, and the game is blacked out, this will give a lot more force to the FCC policy suggestion,” Zimbalist said. “Here it is, the most popular television sport in the United States, and not to have a postseason game on television in the home market? It will have very interesting ramifications.”