Ohio State Representative Robert Hagan introduced House Bill No. 599 this week, which proposes to "ban local sports teams that play in stadiums partially or fully funded with public dollars from 'blacking out' televised broadcasts." Sherry Coolidge with the Cincinnati Enquirer writes:
The legislation would prohibit any pro-sports team that regularly plays in a stadium built with money from the state or other political subdivision from entering into a contract that allows for televised ‘black outs’ due to the lack of a certain number of tickets remaining unsold. Under the law, any team that violates this law would be legally compelled to pay back to the state, county, or other political subdivision an amount equal to what was originally financed by the public.
“This will ensure that the taxpayers who have helped finance many of the pro-sports stadiums and arenas in Ohio are able to enjoy the entertainment for which they paid, whether in the stadium itself or from the comfort of their own home,” Hagan said.
Hagan isn't the only politician determined to end the league's blackout policy one way or another. United States Senator Sherrod Brown pressured the NFL last year to dissolve the dated policy, largely motivated by a significant portion of his Ohio constituents in Cincinnati struggling to sell out Paul Brown Stadium, forcing taxpayers that paid for the stadium to miss the game on television.
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 The rule is an outdated relic that doesn't serve the NFL or the fans.
Earlier this year four United States Senators requested that the FCC investigate the league's policy. Citing concerned attendance drops, the NFL eventually softened their blackout policy, but with a price. Teams were allowed to declare a sellout even as low as 85 percent capacity (non-premium); a number submitted to the league office prior to the regular season. However every ticket sold beyond the approved benchmark gave the visiting team 50 cents on the dollar sold at the gates, far more than the standard 34 percent.
It was such a "debilitating" cost that most teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals, refused to take advantage of the relaxed policy. Bengals President Mike Brown announced that nothing was changing in Cincinnati back in July; a theme most organizations, especially those struggling to sell games out, agreed with.
"We’re going to stick with the old rule. What we want to see are sold out houses and we want the stadium full with 65,000-plus people. We don’t want to get to just 85 percent or 55,000. If you think back when they passed the sales tax to finance the stadiums they did it so people could come downtown to the stadiums and watch games. They didn’t do it so people could sit at home and watch games on television. They could have done that without a new stadium. So I think it is best for us and when I look around the league I can see most teams staying with the old rule."
The San Diego Chargers Week Three loss to the Atlanta Falcons failed to sellout with nearly 9,200 tickets remaining. By not taking advantage of the league's relaxed blackout rule, the game would have been televised locally with the official attendance at 87 percent capacity. Earlier this year the Chargers required a 24-hour extension just to sellout their home opener against the Tennessee Titans, which set a television ratings record with a 37.8 rating.
On the other hand, those that took advantage of the relaxed blackout policy have continued struggling. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced on Thursday that after three consecutive non-sellouts this season, they've surpass the 85 percent threshold for the first time this season against the New Orleans Saints, despite electing to use the 85 percent general-admission seating policy. This from a team that radically changed its roster with high-profile free agent signings, a new head coach, price reduction on 80 percent of their tickets, incorporated Wi-Fi, recently introduced half-season ticket plan and a "12-month payment option for season-ticket holders".
“We’re pleased to have reached the 85% of general admission seats needed for local broadcast of this Sunday’s game versus the New Orleans Saints, which leaves us with the remaining 15 percent of tickets (starting at $30) available for this exciting divisional showdown,” vice president of business administration Brian Ford said.
Oakland's streak of sellouts dating back to 2010 is in jeopardy of being snapped this weekend against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Raiders, another team that took advantage of the relaxed blackout policy, requested a 24-hour extension to the league office, despite only needing 85 percent capacity for an official sellout. Then again the Raiders have had more blackouts (79) than televised games (59) since moving back to Oakland.
We're seven weeks into the the NFL regular season, so any conclusions based on that rather small sample size is slightly premature. Yet the principle always boils down to one thing; teams that win, sell.