Forty years ago, there was a theory going around that if a professional sports team didn't sell enough tickets to their games, it would be a good idea to punish the viewers of their television product, also known as their other revenue stream, in some kind of ham-fisted attempt to get them to purchase tickets instead. While this was stupid even then, this was back when ticket sales and in-stadium sales represented a massive percentage of an athletic team's revenue. It was also back when the style of the television broadcast meant that poor attendance was hugely reflected on the home screen, which could have a negative impact on the perception of the team, the entertainment product, and the sport in general. Still, anyone with even an iota of thought that any of this was a good idea only had to look at the Chicago Blackhawks' popularity (or lack of it) during their blackout period to know how misguided this all was.
Yet this practice has gone on in the NFL for the past four decades. And, while league officials love to point out how few blackouts have occurred since implementing the policy, they're conveniently forgetting to tell you about how teams are gaming the system by buying up remaining tickets or altering their stadiums to avoid the blackouts. Less known is that the FCC has been a partner in these NFL blackouts for all these many years, but now that looks to be changing. They recently voted to lift the blackout restrictions entirely, recognizing that they were at best a strategy for a different time.
"The sports blackout rules were originally adopted nearly 40 years ago when game ticket sales were the main source of revenue for sports leagues...," the FCC said. "Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public."
So, what are these changes that the FCC is recognizing? Well, for starters, ticket sales and stadium sales aren't the mass revenue generator they once were. They're still important, of course, just not as important as the insane television and advertising deals now in place.
The networks pay a combined total of about $3 billion a year to broadcast NFL games based on a nine-year deal signed in 2011 worth almost $28 billion. Neither Fox Sports nor CBS Sports, the main carriers of the NFL, had any comment on the FCC's proposal.
No, I suspect the networks were too busy keeping their heads from nodding in vigorous fashion at the FCC ruling to comment on much of anything at the moment. Because, while there have indeed been few blackouts, even the threat of a blackout is a stick in the eye of the advertising cow that is the NFL. More stability in the availability of the product is of course a great thing for them, particularly given that NFL teams tend to be in larger markets and local blackouts effect massive amounts of people. So we're all happy happy here, yes?
No, of course not, because the NFL appears to be run by people who have spent too much time hitting one another with their heads.
The NFL said in a statement that it will "strongly oppose any change in the rule. We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago. While affecting very few games the past decade, 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."
Nothing the FCC votes on prevents the league and/or teams from implementing their own blackout rules, so the NFL is free to continue down that path out of a fear of the television product showing less people at the stadiums. But that, dear friends, is stupid
. It's stupid for several reasons. First, wider television audiences build up the fanbase and bring in greater crowds to the stadium. That was the lesson the Blackhawks should have taught everyone. Second, the NFL has never been more popular than it is today. Given that, if there are less people at the stadium, guess where they're watching? Yup, on their televisions, which we already know are now the major cash cow of the teams and the league. So you're going to cut that highly-paid nose off just to spite your stadium face?
Still, more television access, more streaming, and less restrictions are a trend that cannot be fought. It may take a change in leadership, but eventually the NFL blackout rules will go the way of the no-forward-pass rules, and they'll be all the better for it.