SBJ/October 18-24, 2010/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL group will battle blackouts

RaidersGetty Images
The Raiders, who had three blackouts through Week 5, will be in the group.
Looking to stem the increasing number of empty seats at some stadiums this season, the NFL has formed a nine-team group that will focus on ticketing, the in-game experience, fan engagement and stadium operations.

The move comes as more than twice the number of games had been blacked out through Week 5 of this season compared with 2009, though the 2010 count remains far below historical highs. It also suggests that the league, rather than revisiting its controversial blackout policy, wants first to put even more effort into ensuring that its live events are sold out.

Games must be sold out in order to be televised locally.

Mark Waller, the league’s chief marketing officer, spearheaded the creation of the group and said it was a response to the struggles some teams have had selling out. The group is somewhat balanced between teams that have had no trouble selling tickets and those that have struggled.

The nine teams are Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville, New England, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. Executives, not owners, will be featured in the group. The participating executives have yet to be named.

Through Week 5 of this year’s season, eight of the total 76 NFL games played had been blacked out, up from four games through Week 5 last year. The blackout pace of just over 10 percent of games played is the highest level through five weeks since 2000. In addition, the league before the season projected that overall attendance this season would drop as much as 2 percent, coming in at its lowest level since 1998.

League officials have pointed to the economy as well as to the difficulties of competing with newer and better in-home entertainment systems, including both HD and 3-D TV, as reasons for the lower turnstile counts.

In response, the league has aggressively embraced new measures, such as making the RedZone Channel available in-stadium, lifting noise prohibitions, and encouraging greater use of technology, such as handheld devices, while at games. Those efforts, however, have still left many teams struggling.

Buffalo recently had its first game since 2006 blacked out. Tampa Bay, not long ago a perennial sellout, said that all of its games this year likely would be blacked out.

In total, this year’s eight blackouts through Week 5 came from Oakland (3 games), Tampa Bay (2), San Diego (2) and the Bills.

Filling seats has historically been more of an issue for other leagues than it has for the NFL. Fewer games and high popularity ensured that the NFL had little to worry about compared with leagues that have 41- and 81-game home schedules. But Commissioner Roger Goodell has identified the in-game experience as a top issue facing the league, and the working group is the latest manifestation of that approach.
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