TAMPA, Fla. (
) -- In Tampa, where the Buccaneers have had all of the home games blacked out since the NFL season began, "outrage" is an understatement.
NFL rules dictate that games are to be blacked out in the home television market if a game doesn't sell out within 72 hours of kickoff. This has happened twice in Tampa this season and has also led to blackouts of San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders games this season, putting the league on pace to break its five-year high of 22 blackouts in the 2009 season. Going into Week 4, the St. Louis Rams -- who needed a 24-hour extension from the league to sell out Edward Jones Stadium last week -- were seeking their second extension of the season while the Chargers and Raiders blacked out their second home games of the year. This comes as Indianapolis Colts General Manager Bill Polian announced this week that he believes the regular-season schedule's expansion from 16 to 18 games is a "fait accompli." He may want to check in with the teams who can't sell out the existing eight home games, never mind nine.
Why does the NFL's attendance continue to drop (down from 17.3 million in 2008 to 16.7 million last season) while its TV ratings rise (up 15% last season)? Sports pundits blame poorly performing teams, the NFL blames the markets, the fans blame fickle followers, economic instability and myriad viewing options. All of the blame, however, rests with the NFL and its almost suicidal approach to shoring up its revenue stream.
The NFL isn't hurting for money, with a list of official sponsors that includes
Procter & Gamble
-- who factor blackouts into their contracts with the league. The NFL's teams also seem flush as ever, with Team Marketing Report reporting a 4.5% hike in the NFL's average ticket price this year to $76.47 as 18 teams raised the cost of attending a game in 2010. The average cost for a family of four to attend a game this year eclipses $420, or $95 more than the average cost of DirecTV's all-inclusive NFL Sunday Ticket package.
Ticket prices aren't the lone scapegoat, as teams in blacked out markets this year have either maintained last season's ticket prices (Oakland and San Diego) or actually
them (-2.9% in Tampa). Performance and visiting teams haven't been an issue either, as San Diego had made the playoffs four years straight heading into this season and the Bucs were 2-0 going into their second blacked-out game against the popular, 3-0 Pittsburgh Steelers. If St. Louis is blacked out this week, it will be in spite of a 6.3% cut in ticket costs -- the second steepest in the league after the Atlanta Falcons' 8.1% discount.
So why did
by tapping into a live internet video feed of the Bucs-Steelers game last Sunday? Why are Tampa fans paying $25 to tour companies to take them on a bus ride out of the 75-mile blackout radius? Part of the explanation is the economy, which has hit both Florida and California especially hard. California's unemployment was 12.4% last month, well above the 9.6% national average. In the NFL's blacked out cities, Oakland is dealing with a nearly 20% jobless rate while San Diego copes with 10.6% unemployment.
Florida's unemployment rate, meanwhile, hit 11.7% in August while Tampa's rose to 12.6%. Tampa Bay Rays infielder Evan Longoria recently drew fans' ire when he wondered aloud why the Rays were about to clinch a playoff spot in front of a half-empty Tropicana Field. It's the economy, stupid.
A bigger part of it, however, is the NFL itself. The league's deals with Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN bring hours of content into homes each week in high definition and, for the most part, for free. Cable subscribers can thank the NFL for helping to make ESPN a whopping $4.10 of their cable bill each month and its own NFL Network the fifth-highest-priced channel in cable, according to figures from SNL Kagan. However, those offerings and the NFL's exclusivity deal with
that offers all its Sunday games in HD (though still subject to local blackouts), its rebroadcast of games on NFL.com, and its increasing interest in its fantasy football operations -- which now include video highlights -- are taking their toll at ticket counters.
The NFL only piled on the problems this season by allowing fans with DirecTV, Comcast
U-Verse, Verizon FIOS and a handful of other service providers access to its high-definition RedZone channel. By showing only scoring drives and big plays -- which is what most casual fans want to see anyway -- and not subjecting that coverage to blackouts, the NFL is slowly removing any motivation to for fans to attend games.
In fact, the revenue from attendance and television is roughly the same at $4 billion apiece. If fans can sit at home and watch all the games in HD and at better angles than they'll have at the stadiums, why are they going to pay the same price to sit in the nosebleeds and get hosed on concessions?
Loyalty? The love of the game?
The NFL isn't letting those ideals confine it to stadiums, so why should fans? If the league is going to continue fumbling the fan experience by allowing skybox-high ticket prices and killing the impetus for in-stadium viewing, why shouldn't fans in fair-weather cities choose better ways to spend their money and days?
The NFL has rightly embraced TV's love of its sport and the game's high-definition future. By hanging on to its antiquated blackout rule, however, it is mounting a goal-line stand against its own forward progress.
>>NFL Ticket Prices Climb 4.5%
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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.