NFL relaxes blackout rule: explained

NFL relaxes blackout rule: explained

According to an article from the Wall Street Journal, NFL owners have passed a resolution that will allow for local broadcasts of NFL games to continue when as few as 85% of available tickets are sold. Prior to the resolution, teams were forced to sellout or face getting blacked-out.

Notwithstanding, the NFL has continually “looked the other way” in its enforcement of the blackout policy based on the circumstances involved (see the Washington Redskins in a few minutes).

The existing NFL blackout rule evolved from the idea that showing football games on television locally would reduce the number of fans in attendance. In fact, in the 1960s, NFL games were blacked out within a 75-mile radius of the stadium to “protect” the home audience.

This way of thinking put the focus on “butts in the bleachers” rather than on television revenue. Of course, as the NFL grew and the fan base rapidly increased, it wasn’t long before the thing the NFL had feared—fewer “butts in the bleachers”—instead made them a multi-billion dollar business.

Today, television revenue is the lifeblood of the NFL (coffee, however, remains the lifeblood that drives the dream of champions), and it casts a sometimes ominous shadow over the importance of stadium attendance.

Nevertheless, the league is continuing to look at ways to give fans an incentive to come out to the stadium and watch their home team in person . . .

Negotiations are currently under way for league-wide free Wi-Fi for fans inside stadiums. The NFL also intends to place microphones on certain players, so fans will be able to hear on-field commentary through a smartphone app that is currently in the works.

. . . It’s unclear whether the app’s functionality on game-day will somehow be limited to only fans inside the stadium.

The new 85% rule will now actually allow teams to set their own blackout restrictions, provided they stay at or above 85%. In order to keep teams from simply setting their limit at the bare minimum, the NFL will increase the amount of money given to the visiting team for every ticket sold above the set percentage.

NFL teams currently pay the visiting team 34 cents on the dollar for every ticket sold to each home game. So, for example, if the Bears set their minimum at 85% (they won’t—more on that in a minute), and they sold 100% of their tickets, they would now have to pay the visiting team 50 cents on the dollar (instead of 34 cents) for the additional 15% sold.

Soldier Field’ seating capacity is 61,500; 15% is 9,225. Say, for example, those tickets sell for $100 each, instead of paying the visiting team $34 bucks (remember: 34 cents on the dollar) for each of those 9,225 tickets ($313,650), they would have to pay $50 bucks for each ($461,250), a difference of $147,600 dollars. Hence, why the Bears will set a reasonable limit.

But, when you consider a team like the Washington Redskins, for another example, whose stadium capacity is 91,704, it quickly becomes clear where the issue lies with the NFL’s formula.

In the chart below, the Bears are ranked as the fifth bestselling team in the league in 2011 based on seating capacity percentage sold. The Redskins, on the other hand, are ranked 30th out of 32. And yet, Washington outsold Chicago in number of tickets last season by nearly 120,000.

Despite the high number of ticket sales in 2011, the Redskins still only reached 83.9% of available tickets sold.

Dan Snyder has repeatedly stated in Redskins’ press releases that games have been sold-out since 1966. It’s a flat-out lie. The Skins haven’t actually sold out a single home game since Snyder has owned the team.

The NFL, likely and largely due to the Skins’ specific circumstances, has not enforced the blackout rule for Washington in past years (spirit of the law, not letter of the law, I always say), and so one has to wonder if, with this new percentage, they’ll have to.

Also, many times, team owners and sponsors will buy up remaining tickets at a reduced price to, technically, keep from being blacked out.

Then the question is, should the Redskins—a wildly popular franchise—be penalized for having a higher seating capacity than the market can realistically fill? If I’m Dan Snyder, I’m remodeling and conveniently ripping out about 15,000 seats should I start being penalized!

So, while the Bears have ranked near the top-5 in capacity-based percentage sales for a long time, it’s not exactly fair to assume it’s because we’re “just so great here in Chicago.” Mostly, it’s because our stadium has the lowest seating capacity in the NFL.

But that doesn’t really tell the whole tale either. Because while the Bears have the seventh lowest average attendance in the NFL (not holding that against them—seating capacity, remember), they also have the fifth highest average ticket price (according to at around $178 bucks.

So it’s safe to assume that if Soldier Field held more fans than it does currently, more fans would show up. But there would quickly come a point of diminishing return. For Bears fans, and the team, it’s probably one of the biggest positives to having a stadium the size of Soldier Field.

The Cincinnati Bengals, on the opposite side of the spectrum, have been blacked out continually over the years and continue to struggle to put “butts in the bleachers” despite the league’s fourth lowest average ticket price (again, according to of $42.31.

Here’s the 2011 breakdown:

Team Total Attendance Average Attendance      Stadium Stadium Capacity Avg as %  of Capacity*
New Orleans Saints 584,335 73,041 Superdome 68,000 107.4
Dallas Cowboys 684,096 85,512 Cowboys Stadium 80,000 106.9
Philadelphia Eagles 553,152 69,144 Lincoln Financial Field 67,594 102.3
Indianapolis Colts 518,627 64,828 Lucas Oil Stadium 63,500 102.1
Chicago Bears 497,166 62,145 Soldier Field 61,500 101.0
Houston Texans 571,969 71,496 Reliant Stadium 71,054 100.6
Baltimore Ravens 569,792 71,224 M&T Bank Stadium 71,008 100.3
Tennessee Titans 553,144 69,143 LP Field 69,134 100.0
New England Patriots 550,048 68,756 Gillette Stadium 68,756 100.0
San Francisco 49ers 557,856 69,732 Candlestick Park 69,732 100.0
Seattle Seahawks 531,311 66,413 CenturyLink Field 67,000 99.1
Denver Broncos 602,618 75,327 Mile High 76,125 99.0
Detroit Lions 509,940 63,742 Ford Field 64,500 98.8
Carolina Panthers 578,342 72,292 Bank of America Stadium 73,504 98.4
Minnesota Vikings 502,529 62,816 Metrodome 64,121 98.0
Pittsburgh Steelers 504,279 63,034 Heinz Field 65,050 96.9
Atlanta Falcons 551,892 68,986 Georgia Dome 71,228 96.9
Green Bay Packers 564,097 70,512 Lambeau Field 72,928 96.7
New York Giants 635,800 79,475 MetLife Stadium 82,500 96.3
New York Jets 631,888 78,986 MetLife Stadium 82,500 95.7
Arizona Cardinals 489,455 61,181 University of Phoenix Stadium 65,000 94.1
Oakland Raiders 473,938 59,242 Coliseum 63,132 93.8
San Diego Chargers 523,143 65,392 Qualcomm Stadium 70,000 93.4
Jacksonville Jaguars 498,655 62,331 EverBank Field 67,164 92.8
Kansas City Chiefs 576,659 72,082 Arrowhead Stadium 79,451 90.7
Cleveland Browns 526,874 65,859 Cleveland Browns Stadium 73,300 89.8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 396,300 56,614 Raymond James Stadium 65,908 85.9
St. Louis Rams 451,153 56,394 Edward Jones Dome 66,000 85.4
Buffalo Bills 438,864 62,694 Ralph Wilson Stadium 73,967 84.8
Washington Redskins 615,368 76,921 FedEx Field 91,704 83.9
Miami Dolphins 487,089 60,886 Sun Life Stadium 75,192 81.0
Cincinnati Bengals 394,009 49,251 Paul Brown Stadium 65,515 75.2

Six of the Cincinnati Bengals’ seven home games last season were blacked out locally. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown spoke out on the blackout policy then:

“The NFL’s blackout policy is unnecessary,” Brown said.  “The NFL is poised to earn record profits while the Cincinnati taxpayers, who built the stadium, will be watching reruns rather than touchdown runs. The rule is an outdated relic that doesn’t serve the NFL or the fans.”

Even the new flexible blackout policy will not serve to help the Bengals if they can’t figure out how to get fans out to the stadium (here’s an idea: win something), seeing as their average capacity percentage sold in 2011 was just 75.2%.

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