SBJ/May 30 - June 6, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL may let clubs cover seats to avoid TV blackouts

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The league has allowed Jacksonville to cover nearly 10,000 seats since 2005.
The NFL may allow teams to artificially reduce their seating capacities in order to ease compliance with the league’s blackout policy, which requires a sellout 72 hours in advance in order for a game to be broadcast in the home team’s market.

Owners discussed the potential change last week during their spring meeting in Indianapolis. It could be brought up for a vote as early as a league meeting in Chicago on June 21.

“We talked about reducing manifests for blackout purposes,” said John Mara, New York Giants co-owner. “Manifests” refers to the number of seats that must be sold to trigger a sellout.

The league in one case has already made such an exception. The Jacksonville Jaguars since 2005 have covered more than 9,700 of the 76,000-plus seats at EverBank Field with tarps. The covered seats are not counted in determining whether a Jaguars game is sold out.

The league made no decision last week, and Mara questioned whether the manifests could be changed depending on whether a compelling game, with high ticket demand, were to occur. In other words, if the league required, as it does in Jacksonville, that teams physically place certain seats off limits, the question is whether those seats could then be uncovered for high-demand games.

After the economic downturn hit in 2008, many teams struggled to sell tickets. Better in-home entertainment systems also are keeping fans at home. The league has been seeking innovative ways to get people into stadiums on game day, but it’s stoutly resisted calls to drop the blackout policy, which has been in place since 1973.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, asked last week about whether the league might suspend the blackout policy, did not address the possibility of easing the rule.

“The blackout rule has been in existence for three or four decades now,” he said. “It has been through work stoppages. It has been through economic downturns. We continue to try to address the issue of selling tickets through various policies and give teams as much flexibility as possible in getting tickets sold. It’s been a balance of trying to keep our game on free television with making sure that we have full stadiums. Last year, 26 games were blacked out. … We had much more significant blackouts as early as the ’90s.”

The blackout policy, however, poses another hurdle for teams. Many clubs that struggle to sell out in the days before a home game frequently cut deals with sponsors to sell the tickets for less than face value. Often, the team itself buys the tickets back for less than face value to ensure that the game is televised locally.

The club is still required to pay the visiting team’s share back to the league, though. That amount is 34 percent of face value.

One team source suggested this was a problem for many teams. Also, this source said, for teams with personal seat license holders, selling highly discounted tickets creates appearance issues with the fans who spent significant sums for their seats.
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