NFL Blackouts: 16 Games in 2011, NFL Cares 0

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Only in the NFL is a season in which a team televises less than half of its home games considered a success.

A league whose core business is showing professional football to the masses failed to do that 16 times in four different markets last year when its policies blacked out home games not sold out 72 hours before kickoff. That number is an improvement over the 26 blacked out in 2010 but would have been a lot higher if it weren't for a little loophole that allows tickets to be bought for 34 cents on the dollar by team broadcast partners who've already paid millions in rights fees (looking at you and your CBS ( CBS) affiliate, Miami Dolphins) or sponsors who've paid more than a billion just to make their products NFL official (see Anheuser-Busch's ( BUD) Bud Light bailouts of the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars last year).
Anheuser-Busch performed some Bud Light bailouts of the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars last year.

This comes as no surprise to fans in NFL markets such as Tampa/St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were blacked out on local CBS and Fox affiliates five times after having their entire slate of home games taken off television in 2010. This is just standard operating procedure for a league that renewed its television deal with CBS, Fox ( NWS) and NBC ( CMCSA) through 2022, increased its take from $1.9 billion per year to $3.1 billion and potentially boosted overall revenue by as much as 60%. That followed an eight-year extension the league signed with ESPN ( DIS) earlier this year to keep Monday Night Football on that network through 2021 and bump up its fee to $1.9 billion a year from $1.1 billion.

This is the same league that blacked out a Buffalo Bills home game against the Dolphins the same week it signed that multi-network, multibillion-dollar deal and, on Christmas Eve less than a week later, blacked out Bills and Cincinnati Bengals home games. It doesn't matter that the blackout rule was written back in 1973, when the NFL's TV take was miniscule and stadium ticket receipts made up a much bigger part of league revenue. It's of little concern to the NFL that the nearly $430 average cost of taking a family of four to one NFL game, according to Team Marketing Report, is more than the cost of seeing hundreds of NFL games and watching the blackout-proof RedZone channel with DirecTV's ( DTV) Sunday Ticket package.

The NFL just wants its money. Its paid mouthpiece, Brian McCarthy, told fans so through this statement to USA Today just before the Christmas Eve blackouts:

"The blackout policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV. Playing in full stadiums with thousands of fans is an important part of what makes NFL football an exciting and special entertainment event, both live and on television. We have a limited number of games and do not want to erode the incentive to buy tickets. Every market receives more than 100 NFL games on free TV every year, regardless of the blackout policy."

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There you have it: Just shut up and watch some other city's team, will ya? The league doesn't want to hear Bills fans complain about their city's average 36-degree temperatures and two feet of snow each December or the fact that the 73,000 people required to fill Ralph Wilson Stadium is not only far greater than the 61,500 it takes to sell out Soldier Field in Chicago, but amounts to nearly a quarter of Buffalo's 293,000 population. They don't want to hear the Bills faithful drone on about management moving one home game to Toronto each year, the team's refusal to commit to Buffalo once owner Ralph Wilson's tenure ends and the $40 million to $100 million the team wants from Erie County to revamp the current stadium on top of the $7.3 million it already gets in maintenance and game-day subsidies.

Despite the fact that fans of a playoff-caliber team in Cincinnati missed six of their team's eight home games, the NFL doesn't want to hear it from Bengals fans either. Sure, nearly $500 million of their tax dollars went into building Paul Brown Stadium and the recession took its toll on the local economy, but that's no excuse not to pony up an average $72 a ticket or $400 for a family of four just like everyone else.

Is the billionaire Spanos family that owns the San Diego Chargers seeking money for new stadium and considering moving the team to Chula Vista or Los Angeles? Doesn't matter. The league wants its money and won't abide your two blackouts. Are jobs scarce and mortgages underwater in the Tampa area? It doesn't matter that taxpayers plunked down nearly $170 million for Raymond James Stadium or that owner Malcolm Glazer has enough cash to own Manchester United as well. The NFL wants to get paid.

The voices speaking out against the NFL's blackout policy are getting louder. Fan and consumer advocacy groups the Sports Fan Coalition, National Consumers League, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and Ralph Nader's League of Fans petitioned the Federal Communications Commission in November to eliminate the NFL blackout rule. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has petitioned the commission twice this season on behalf of Cincinnati and Dayton residents to eliminate home game blackouts.

"The NFL's blackout policy is unnecessary," Brown said. "The NFL is poised to earn record profits while the Cincinnati taxpayers who built the stadium will be watching reruns rather than touchdown runs. The rule is an outdated relic that doesn't serve the NFL or the fans."

The NFL's still not listening. Why should it? Not only were football's ratings up in 2011, but the NFL pre-game and post-game shows accounted for four of television's Top 10 prime-time shows and for nine out of the Top 10 single broadcasts, according to Nielsen.

That leaves fans tired of blackouts, but not tired enough to boycott the NFL, with two options:

1. Hope the team gets better, as the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders did while selling out entire slates of home games in 2011 after dealing with blackouts in 2010. The Bengals and last year's Buccaneers, however, are fine examples of how that strategy can fail and force fans to ...

2. Buy the Sunday Ticket package, which is what the NFL's spokesman implies you should be doing anyway. No, you won't get to see the full version of a blacked-out game until the next day at the earliest, but the RedZone channel will give you all of that game's scoring drives and game-changing plays in real time while providing more exciting moments from other games as filler.

Football fans aren't going to bail on the NFL anytime soon, but if the league is bent on raising ticket prices and punitively punishing fans that don't fill their oversized stadiums to capacity under every circumstance, it's the fan's right to exploit blackout loopholes on their own.

-- 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,, 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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