Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Should the NFL do away with its blackout rules?

I want to address something that's printed in Peter King's mail bag this week. A reader writes to comment about the blackout in Detrot, how most Lions fans didn't see the game, and there's been no media comment on this.

There's one problem with your case, which I agree is compelling and I have much empathy with: Once you let the genie out of the bottle, how are you going to put it back in?

Don't. Just don't.

If unemployment in Detroit is 29 percent this year and you show the games locally, there are two problems. If it's still 29 percent next year, how do you black out the games again, and how do you sell tickets to a struggling fan base when the fans know the games are going to be on local TV?

How do you sell them when the fans know the games aren't going to be on local TV? How do you sell tickets to an NFL game, period? You sell the experience. Watching a football game from the comfort of your den is a substantially different experience from sitting in the crowd, sitting within earshot of the action of the field. They are different enough experiences as to hardly qualify, from an economic standpoint, as substitute products.

And let's look at it one different way. Let's say you're an NFL fan in Detroit, but you can't justify spending money on tickets. If the NFL is blacking out home games, you're going to see eight Lions games, tops. You might see ten or eleven games of the Vikings or the Giants or the Cowboys. Why wouldn't you be a fan of one of those teams instead of the Lions? A significant percentage of a fan-base develops affection for a team because that's the team they get to see. Don't the blackout rules result in a "lost generation" for a team that needs support?

According to the box score, there were 40,896 fans in attendance at the Lions game in week 3. How many fewer would have had to attend for the loss in game-day revenue to exceed the loss from a decline in long-term fan interest resulting from inability to consistently see the games? More importantly, how many fewer would have attended if the game were available on local television? Again, while the product - a Detroit Lions National Football League game - is the same, the experiences are completely different.

I don't know what the ticket prices are in Detroit, but it seems to me that one of two things must be true - either they're low enough so that the impact on revenues of a local broadcast of a non-sold out game wouldn't be a significant percentage of revenues, or they're high enough so that relatively few would opt to spend the money just because of the absence of a local broadcast. People who feel that the game experience justify the cost are going to go, whether it's on locally or not. And people who don't feel that way but want to watch the NFL will stay home and watch the game that's on instead of ponying up for the tickets, parking, concessions, etc.

I'm sure that the NFL has analyses on this issue that justify their position. And I can understand the owner's fear of broadcasts killing the live gate (though Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA all seem to survive without sellout-blackout rules). But I'm skeptical that the blackout rules are actually benefitting the teams.

And then what do you do in Jacksonville if unemployment continues to creep up? How does Wayne Weaver feel -- or understand -- when the league is allowing one franchise to show the games locally when you can't? It's a tremendously difficult problem with no easy solution.

Sure there is - get rid of the blackout rule. Take the long-term view and sell the product rather than preventing those most interested in seeing it from being able to.

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