PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Politicians will bluster and the National Football League will posture, but it's just about guaranteed the league will keep the home team off television screens in some markets this year.
The NFL blacked out 15 games last year. That's down from 16 in 2011 and 26 in 2010, but is still impressive after the NFL tweaked its blackout policy last summer to allow teams to declare a sellout and keep games on the air once ticket sales hit 85% of their home stadium's capacity. Under the old rule, which dates back to an act of Congress in 1961, home games couldn't be shown on TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium if non-premium tickets weren't completely sold out 72 hours before kickoff.
That switch wasn't mandatory, however, and it was up to the teams' owners to decide if they want to adopt that 85% threshold and pay a greater percentage of ticket revenue to opposing teams as a result. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jumped at the chance in July and lowered ticket prices after blacking out 13 of their past 15 home games. The Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings also joined in, but that didn't prevent two of those four teams from blacking out games in 2012.
Those who vow that things will be different this year point to a bill introduced by former presidential nominee and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. McCain's legislation would require the NFL to broadcast all home games locally in markets where teams have used public financing to build stadiums, which is almost everywhere."Now, if that stadium is not taxpayer-financed, then that owner can do anything they want to," McCain said. "But if the taxpayers paid for them, then, by God, I think the taxpayers ought to be able to see the game whether they sell out the stadium or not." Other politicians, including Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have called for the end of NFL blackouts, citing the public money involved and the league's staggering TV revenue. NFL games accounted for 31 out 32 of the most-watched TV broadcasts last fall and more than doubled the prime-time viewership of Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC. 21st Century Fox (FOXA) (formerly News Corp.), CBS (CBS) and Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC agreed to pay the NFL $28 billion for broadcast rights through 2022. Walt Disney's (DIS) ESPN has a separate $1.9 billion annual deal for Monday night football, while DirecTV (DTV) has a $1 billion per season agreement for the NFL Sunday Ticket package that is set to become even more lucrative once the current contract expires in 2015. replace its current home. The Georgia Dome, mind you, was built only 21 years ago with $214 million in taxpayer money and just got $300 million in renovations in 2007 and 2008. Not only is owner Arthur Blank asking for a new stadium to replace one he admits is perfectly functional, but Village Voice writer and FieldofSchemes.com editor Neil DeMause says he's looking for another $300 million to $400 million in public funding for it. Nearly two-thirds of fans surveyed think it's a bad idea. Extortion usually is a bad idea, but it works. New stadiums are coming to Minnesota and Silicon Valley, while small markets in Buffalo and Jacksonville are shelling out for renovations as their owners schedule "home" games in Toronto and London, respectively -- with no guarantees that those teams won't relocate there or elsewhere a decade from now. Television blackouts don't make all of this possible, but they certainly help the owners' cause at the taxpayers' expense.
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