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NFL Sponsorship Is a Thankless Trap

Stocks in this article: CMCSA FOXA DIS CBS BUD GM

The other, more galling blackout took place near the end of the season in Buffalo. Not only did the Bills already gorge themselves on taxpayer dollars and refuse that 85% sellout ceiling, but they did so a year after taking $226 million from Erie County and New York State taxpayers to update Ralph Wilson Stadium. It's the second blackout the team has imposed on fans since announcing that deal, with the other taking place while the ink was drying on the agreement.

The NFL isn't a united army of greedy front offices, which the league made clear by offering its optional sellout threshold a few years back and shifting the blame for blackouts to teams and individual owners. But its more vindictive elements are inclined to take fans and sponsors' loyalty for granted.

The league has a long list of deep-pocketed sponsors. It's a stock ticker parade including McDonald's, General Motors, FedEx, Microsoft, Verizon and Visa. It's also a safety net owners know they can rely upon just in case financial conditions or public sentiment turn against them.

They should also realize that nobody's support is unwavering. In December, the Federal Communication's Commission voted to start dismantling its support of television blackouts. It wants to wash its hands of the whole business and let the NFL and its broadcast partners take the blame for pulling games off the air. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain introduced legislation in May that would prevent the NFL from blacking out home games played in stadiums built with public money. He's received bipartisan support from Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who's also no fan of the current blackout policy.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, meanwhile, is trying to strip the NFL's status as a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. That exemption makes it possible to take a look at commissioner Roger Goodell's $30 million salary, which could buy back quite a few discounted tickets.

All of this should make sponsors and broadcast partners nervous, but it's all nullified by what's still the biggest argument for an NFL deal: There's no bigger game in town. A whopping 34 of the 35 most-watched fall television shows of 2013 were NFL games. The only other show among those 35 was NBC's coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which came in at No. 22.

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