NFL Blackouts Put Heat on Florida

TAMPA (MainStreet) -- The NFL still has great seats available for its games in Florida this year, but none of them happen to be in front of living room or barroom televisions.

Week 2 of the NFL season is upon us, and the Sunshine State's football fans are being sacked for a loss. The Miami Dolphins haven't had a regular-season home game blacked out on local television since 1998 and sold out their upcoming matchup with the Houston Texans at the last minute. Under the NFL's blackout rules, the Fins had until 72 hours before kickoff to sell all their nonpremium tickets and avoid taking a game off of local screens for the first time since their playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts was blacked out in 2000.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers notched the NFL's first blackout of the season last week. Fans who wanted to watch on TV missed a 27-20 loss to the Detroit Lions after the Bucs failed to sell out their home opener.

Miami's cause wasn't helped by a 38-24 Monday night loss to the New England Patriots, whose quarterback, Tom Brady, threw for 514 yards against a largely absent defense and cost cornerback Benny Sapp his job after receiver Wes Welker bet Sapp on a 99-yard touchdown play. A 2.6% hike in the average cost of a family of four to attend a game, pay for parking and grab a beer, soda, hot dog, program and cap, according to Team Marketing Report, isn't doing the team any favors either.

At least they're in some good, warm, sunny company.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers notched the NFL's first blackout of the season last week when fans missed a 27-20 loss to the Detroit Lions after the Bucs failed to sell out their home opener. The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, were only able to keep the team's 16-14 opening win against the Tennessee Titans on television after exploiting a loophole that allows the team to buy back tickets at a third of their cost and give them away. In this case, the town did its large military community a solid by not only keeping the game on air, but giving the remaining 1,400 tickets to the USO.

Each of those teams have struggled to get home games some screen time in recent years. The Bucs had all eight of last season's home games blacked out after failing to sell out Raymond James Stadium for the first time since it opened in 1998. Billionaire owner Malcolm Glazer, who also owns English soccer powerhouse Manchester United, has shown no interest in exploiting buyback loopholes to fill seats even as Fox Business reports that Tampa's attendance has dropped nearly 25% since 2001, the year before the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXVII. Since 2008, the Buccaneers' total annual attendance has dropped from 516,000 to 394,000.

"The NFL definitely don't want people to know they can buy up tickets for 33 cents on the dollar and give them to charity," says Brian Frederick, executive director of fan advocacy and lobbying group Sports Fans Coalition. "That Malcom Glazer didn't buy up tickets to the home opener on 9/11 is amazing."

The Jaguars, meanwhile, had seven of eight home games blacked out in 2009 before a huge civic ticket drive and an unexpected playoff push. Jacksonville's mayor and city council have implored fans to buy season tickets for the second year in a row, but half-season packages and other perks haven't been enough. Thousands of tickets remain unbought and the Jaguars have turned online blackout meters from a 2010 preseason gimmick to a 2011 fixture.

"Folks are very frustrated in Florida, and it's the economy, stupid NFL," Frederick says. "It's clearly a case where the teams are worth supporting but the fans just can't do it."

The problem is that the expectations of the teams, owners and NFL just aren't based on Florida's economic reality. Florida's 10.7% unemployment rate is the fifth-worst in the nation, well above the 9.1% national average. The military helps keep Jacksonville's rate below the state average at 10.4%, but 11% unemployment in Tampa and Miami has been taking its toll on sports attendance in the former for a while and may finally be creeping up on the NFL in the latter.

Florida's teams are battling blackouts alone, but their cold-weather neighbors to the north are just better at hiding the ugliness under a few layers. The Lions sold out Sunday's home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but have lost 25.2% of their attendance since 2001 and had a home game blacked out last season. Those woes came with a little help from Detroit's 14.1% unemployment and a lot of assistance from the team's 39-121 record during that stretch, which included a 0-16 season right in the middle of the 2008 housing crisis.

The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, are filling the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome against the Bucs on Sunday, but had to cut the price of their upper-deck tickets in half to do so. The half-price sale is only in place for Sunday's game and a Sept. 25 matchup with the Lions, but the discount hasn't prevented upper-deck seats from appearing on eBay's ( EBAY) StubHub for as little as $4. This is what happens when your team is in the last year of its stadium lease, there's not a new stadium plan in place and a buyer's group from Los Angeles keeps mentioning your team as a potential target.

If any team and its fan base know how to fake a smile, however, it's the Buffalo Bills. The team blacked out three home games last season and would have taken another off Western New York's televisions if a local business owner hadn't bought up the remaining tickets to the 2010 home finale.

This year, the Bills have sold out their first two home games and opened the season with at 41-7 drubbing of the Chiefs. While those are rare reasons for Bills fans to rejoice after 11 straight years without a playoff berth, they also mask a season ticket base that's shrunk nearly 15% since last season and almost 33% since 2009. That's the year after the Bills started playing one "home" game a year in Toronto -- the only game on the NFL schedule not subject to NFL blackout restrictions. With the true home slate down to seven games and the fans getting no promises from the Bills other than that the team will be in Buffalo for as long as 91-year-old owner Ralph Wilson is alive, it's enough to make an upstate snowbird want to head to Boca for football season.

The home team just might not be on TV once they get there.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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