By Jason Notte
NFL teams now have the power to stop television blackouts of their home games, but that doesn't mean they'll do so.
The NFL blackout policy dates back to an act of Congress in 1961 preventing home games from showing on TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium if tickets aren't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. At the end of June, six months after the Federal Communications Commission agreed to review the policy, the NFL took its first step away from those restrictions: It announced that teams would be allowed to broadcast games within their local coverage area even if only 85 percent of tickets are sold.
What's the catch? It's up to the teams' owners to decide if they want to adopt that 85 percent threshold. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers adopted the lower "sellout" mark in July and lowered ticket prices after blacking out 13 of their past 15 home games. The Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers didn't feel quite as strongly and stuck to the 100 percent mark despite blacking out games in each of the past two seasons and trying to pry hundreds of millions in stadium construction and improvement costs out of their local governments.
This takes heat off the NFL just after it inked television deals with ESPN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox that will boost NFL revenue more than 60 percent by 2022 -- and places the heat right on the individual teams and their owners. By revising the blackout rule despite watching its blackout rate drop to 6.3 percent last year from 8 percent between 2001 and 2010, 31 percent in the 1990s, 40 percent in the 1980s and 50 percentin the 1970s, the NFL issued a subtle reminder that only some of the 31 teams who took public money to build their stadiums are denying fans access to the on-field action.
There are still going to be blackouts this year, but the NFL will get less of the blame despite not repealing the rule altogether. As the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints prepare to kick off the preseason with Sunday's Hall of Fame Game, we take a look around the league at the teams most likely to take their games off television this year. The eight teams listed here will have different reasons for pulling their game broadcasts out of local bars and living rooms, but they'll all resort to the same tactics to try to draw a packed house next time:
Number of television blackouts last year: 0
Number of blackouts in the past five years: 0
Half of Indiana just yelled something unsavory at the screen, but don't blame us. The Colts went 2-14 last year as former franchise quarterback and Super Bowl hero Peyton Manning sat out with an injury. Manning left for Denver this year and though No. 1 overall draft pick and new gunslinger Andrew Luck should generate some buzz, the Colts' front office isn't hedging its bets. The Colts said in early July they would require 100% attendance to avoid blackouts this season despite the NFL's reduced-capacity option. Never mind that local taxpayers picked up nearly 90 percent of four-year-old Lucas Oil Stadium's $720 million cost, according to the National Sports Fan Coalition advocacy group. The Colts want posteriors in the seats, even if it's to watch last-place football for an average $85 a ticket.
Number of television blackouts last year: 6
Number of blackouts in the past five years: 10
Perhaps the Bengals front office still thinks Carson Palmer is taking the snaps and throwing to Chad Ochocinco (or Johnson if the delusion is strong enough). How else do you explain this quote from Bengals president Mike Brown during training camp:
"What we want are sold-out houses. We want to see the stadium full. If you think back when they passed the sales to finance the stadiums [in 1996], they did it so people could come down to the stadiums and watch games. They didn't do it so people could stay at home and watch games on television. They could have done that without a new stadium. When I look around the league, most are staying with the old rule."
Um, Mike, maybe it's because you threatened to move the team back in 1995. Oh, and because you told them the stadium would create jobs and revenue, but ended up costing Hamilton County, Ohio, $540 million. That debt climbed as the recession deepened and expanded to a $30 million budget deficit this year alone. Add annual stadium costs to taxpayers that rose from $29.9 million in 2008 to $34.6 million in 2010 and sales tax revenue that's declined steadily since 2000 and you get crushing debt that eliminates funding for programs such as a juvenile court and rolls back the property tax cut promised as part of the stadium deal.
"Sold-out houses?" Brown's team made the playoffs last year and couldn't sell out more than two of its home games.
Number of television blackouts last year: 2
Number of blackouts in the past five years: 5
This team sold out 48 straight games through 2010 but started feeling the blackout bug that year as mainstays such as LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie left and team ownership sought a new stadium from San Diego or the next highest bidder.
As Los Angeles and Chula Vista lick their chops, the Spanos family that owns the team is all too happy to black out the fans who refuse to pack Qualcomm Stadium just to watch their team drift further into mediocrity.
"We're in one of the oldest stadiums in the league, and don't have opportunities that other teams have to increase revenue with things like a bigger naming rights deal or digital signage," executive vice president and CEO A.G. Spanos told the North County Times. "We rely heavily on ticket sales as a primary revenue stream. This market has shown an ability to sell out games over the last 10 years, and we need to take advantage of that."
Never mind that the Chargers haven't shown an ability to make the playoffs since 2009 or a will to commit to the San Diego market in nearly as long. Eighty-five percent capacity won't pay for their old, publicly funded stadium or do much for their efforts to cajole a new one out of the city.
Number of television blackouts last year: 3
Number of blackouts in the past five years: 6
Where to start with the Buffalo Bills?
One of the team's "home" games has been played in Toronto for each of the past four years. The team's 92-year-old owner, Ralph Wilson, says he can't guarantee the team's future in Buffalo, N.Y., after he dies. The team struggles to fill the 73,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium in the dead of winter while the Chicago Bears need to draw less than 62,000 to sell out Soldier Field in a far larger market. The team hasn't had a winning record since 1999, yet is asking the public to foot the bill for more than $200 million in stadium renovations.
The team declined the NFL's offer to lift blackouts at 85 percent capacity, largely because doing so would require it to pay $90,000 per home game into the league's anti-blackout revenue pool. The price to retain its disgruntled fan base or bring in new generations of fans is likely a bit higher.
Number of television blackouts last year: 0
Number of blackouts in the past five years: 7
The lack of blackouts in Jacksonville during the past two seasons has been a huge point of pride for the team and the community, which have pushed for sellouts for each game and made it part of the local fabric. The fact remains, though, that the Jacksonville economy still isn't great, the team hasn't made the playoffs since 2007 and was bad enough last year to warrant coach Jack Del Rio's firing, sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch are still buying up tickets to avoid blackouts and new owner Shahid Khan refuses to commit to a future in Jacksonville. He's even refused the NFL's new sellout option.
Jacksonville remains one of the league's least valuable franchises, as evidenced by its $760 million selling price last year, and still resorts to tarping off the upper reaches of EverBank Field to reduce capacity. Though whispers of a potential move to Los Angeles have been nothing more than that, one winning season in the past six makes it tough for fans to support a team with expendable income they don't have.
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