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Up to 12 NFL teams may face blackouts
Published August 31, 2009
Up to four times the number of NFL teams are at risk of having at least one of their games blacked out locally when the season begins next week compared with last year, the latest sign the down economy is taking a toll on even America’s most popular sport.
According to NFL and team sources, the league showed club owners at their meeting in Chicago on Aug. 19 a video slide with the names of 10 to 12 teams that may not sell out every game. A game that is not sold out within 72 hours of kickoff cannot be broadcast locally.
Last year, only three teams — Oakland, Detroit and St. Louis — suffered blackouts. Collectively, those three teams had nine games blacked out, just one more than the eight regular-season games the Jacksonville Jaguars alone are expecting to contribute to this year’s total. The Jaguars have already said that in all likelihood no contest in their eight-game home schedule will sell out this season.
Despite the difficulty that one-third of the league’s teams is having selling out, the NFL is not contemplating amending the blackout rule, which has been in place 36 years.
“There is no consideration being given to amending the blackout policy,” wrote NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, in an e-mail. “The policy is important in supporting the ability of the clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds so we can keep all our games on free TV.”
Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and CBS News, said last week that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told him that “he is not going to make any major adjustment to a rule that has lasted a long time just because of a short-term economic problem.”
When asked if CBS had concerns about blacked-out games, McManus said, “I don’t think there is any way they are going to change it, so it is pointless to talk to them about it.”
The identity of all the teams that were on the list displayed to owners is unclear, though certainly the Jaguars, Lions, Raiders and Rams have challenges. Other teams that have shown signs of struggling to sell out games ahead of the start of this season include San Diego, Miami and Minnesota, though less so now for the Vikings since the signing of Brett Favre.
What is also is surprising is the number of teams that historically have had long waiting lists and been locks for sellouts that have not fully moved all their tickets. The New York Jets just last week launched a viral marketing campaign sent to prospective ticket buyers that inserts a fan’s name into a personalized video of players and executives talking about that fan as the team’s prized acquisition. The video pitch is also accessible online, via jointhejets.com. The Dolphins have sent a similar video to potential ticket buyers.
The Kansas City Chiefs, another team with deep fan ties, also has not fully sold out all their games.
Many teams avoided blackouts in past years by having local sponsors or other companies buy up any remaining inventory, but some of those companies may not be able to afford to do so in these economic times. In addition, in some cases, the number of tickets available is more than just a few thousand.
While the prospects for this season may be dampened, historically the league is still in great shape. Only in 2002 did the league first reach the 90 percent mark for games selling out. In the 1970s, when the blackout rule was first established, more than half of the games routinely did not sell out. The league did better in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, on average about six to seven games out of 10 made their way onto local TV. By 2007, the league hit its high water mark of 97 percent, with 13 out of 17 weeks entirely sold out and only seven of the regular season’s 256 games blacked out.