Blackouts Cast Shadow on NFL Opener

As the NFL kicks off in New Orleans, there are potential TV blackouts for a third of its teams.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Tonight's NFL kickoff is worthy of a party in New Orleans, but means a half-season without a team for fans in Oakland, Jacksonville and elsewhere.

Fans in Tampa got a taste of things to come this week when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Sunday home opener was blacked out -- the first time in more than a decade a regular season home game wasn't broadcast in the city. Now more than a third of the league will feel that pain, as

USA Today

estimates 11 teams could lose home game broadcasts this year thanks to dwindling attendance.

According to NFL rules, any game that isn't sold out 72 hours before kickoff is required to be blacked out in its home market. In trying economic times, that's been happening more frequently. Blackouts rose from nine in 2008 to 22 -- or nearly 9% of all games -- last season. Last year, the only five teams to have their home games blacked out -- the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs -- saw their combined blackouts (22) exceed their combined win total (19). Fans in Tampa and followers of playoff teams including the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers may also lose home game broadcasts this year.

NFL sponsors such as

MolsonCoors

(TAP) - Get Report

,

Pepsi

(PEP) - Get Report

,

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

,

DirecTV

(DTV)

,

Visa

(V) - Get Report

and

Motorola

(MOT)

won't raise a fuss about blackouts, since deals are negotiated nationally and blackouts are part of the package. Also, fans at get another NFL game when the home team is blacked out, so no commercial air time is lost. More at stake is the average $412 that

Team Marketing Research's Fan Cost Index

said families of four spent at NFL games in last year.

For a team such as Tampa Bay, which is about 15,000 tickets shy of its season ticket goal and averages about $400 in revenue for each family of four, costs of unfilled seats can reach $1.5 million per game. That was a cost the Buccaneers were eating last year, when the team used an NFL loophole that allowed it to buy back tickets at a reduced cost to keep the game on the air. The team's owners have said they won't do the same this year.

Improved performance would go a long way for teams such as Jacksonville and the Buffalo Bills, which may have to black out home games this year but have the lowest per-game cost for a family of four -- $310 and $304, respectively. The economy is a more overwhelming factor in such potential blackout markets as Kansas City and San Diego, where ticket prices are below the league average but combined costs far exceed it.

Though fans may not like it, there's evidence blackouts have their intended effect. A 2000 study co-written by University of North Carolina business professor William Putsis and Yale University marketing professor Subrata K. Sen showed that, on average, 5,000 more ticketholders show up for blacked-out games than for games shown on television, while 11,000 more game-day tickets are sold for games taken off local television. During the 1996 season, the season studied, that extra 11,000 ticket buyers translated to an additional $400,000 in game-day revenue. Today, that would net more than $1.5 million.

Still, when the average cost of DirecTV's

NFL Sunday Ticket

is nearly $100 lower that the cost of taking the family to one game, it may be more difficult to coerce fans into buying tickets through blackouts. Changing allegiances is so much cheaper.

--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.