Sherrod Brown Takes On NFL Blackouts

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Want to get your senator's attention? Tell him or her their favorite NFL team's next game is blacked out in its home state.

When the Cincinnati Bengals announced earlier this week that Sunday's matchup with their division and cross-state rival Cleveland Browns would be blacked out in Cincinnati and Dayton because the team was going to fail to sell out Cincinnati's Paul Brown stadium 72 hours before kickoff, that didn't sit well with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. The senator's office petitioned the Federal Communications Commission's office on Wednesday and asked the commission to reconsider the NFL's home-game blackout rule.

"With the NFL seemingly unwilling to reconsider its blackout policies, I'm urging the FCC to take a fresh look at the sports blackout rule and allow fans to watch their home team play on television," Brown said in a statement. "The taxpayers who built many of these stadiums should have broadcast access to them."

Although the Bengals are off to a promising 6-4 start this season behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, they haven't given fans back home a whole lot to celebrate. The Bengals have already failed to sell out three of their previous four home games, had games pulled off of CBS ( CBS) and Fox ( NWS) and had a seven-game home-game blackout streak going before selling out a 24-17 loss the the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 13.

Amid 8.7% unemployment in Greater Cincinnati and 9.2% joblessness in Dayton, where the Bengals game will be blacked out, fans have been asked to shell out the same average $72 for a Bengals game ticket and $401 for a family of four to go to the game, park and get soda, hot dogs, beer and souvenirs, according to Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index. That's up 1.5% from last season and only adds to the $455 million (or roughly $580 million, adjusted for inflation) Hamilton County taxpayers shelled out to fund construction of Paul Brown Stadium. Hamilton County taxpayers took on not only debt, but a half-percent sales tax that they've been paying since 1996 just to make sure the Bengals had a comfy place to call home.

As Brown points out, Bengals ticket prices are nearly 10 times the minimum wage and force a big share of Bengals fans to stay home each Sunday. That financial burden was also a key element of a petition submitted by the Sports Fan Coalition, National Consumers League, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and Ralph Nader's League of Fans two weeks ago asking the FCC to eliminate the NFL blackout rule.

"It is ridiculous that the leagues continue to black out games from their own fans after taking in massive public subsidies, during such difficult economic times, and even more ridiculous that the federal government props up this practice through the sports blackout rule," said Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition, in a statement accompanying the petition.

Though Brown is the first member of Congress to address the NFL blackout rule this year, he's far from the only politician to do so. In Florida, where unemployment in NFL cities Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville hovers between 10% and 11%, state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, has proposed a bill in the Florida legislature to reverse $60 million in tax breaks each of the Florida teams got in the past 30 years in the event of a home-game blackout.

Another Republican in the Florida Senate, Michael Bennett, discovered a little-known Florida law that requires NFL stadiums to function as homeless shelters when they're not being used by the franchises. Bennett asserts that failure to live up to that agreement should require teams to forfeit state funding.

-- 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.