5 Ways the NFL Is Just Going to Mess With Fans' Emotions in 2013

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- As of Sunday's Hall of Fame Game between the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, the National Football League is officially back.

OK, so it's preseason and little more than a bunch of on-field auditions for hopefuls and finger-crossing by fans who'll just be happy if their team's key players make it to the regular season without suffering some gruesome, season-ending injury. Still, that means the NFL's money machine is cranking again and that it's ready to toy with fans' hearts and finances for yet another season.

Last year alone, the NFL produced $9.5 billion in revenue. That's $2 billion more than the $7.5 billion produced by Major League Baseball over the same span and more than the revenue produced by the NCAA ($5.3 billion) and NASCAR ($4.1 billion) combined. Its television revenue is slated to rise from an average of $4 billion a year to $5 billion annually as new contracts kick in. The networks are more than happy to pay after 31 of the 32 most-watched television shows in the fall of 2012 were NFL games.

So why should fans expect a fair measure of misery in 2013? Because even $10 billion isn't enough for the sprawling league. Game attendance jumped from a post-recession low of 17.14 million in 2010 to 17.3 million last year, but was still well short of the record 17.6 million that came out in 2006 and 2007. There were nearly 1 million empty seats at regular season games in 2012, up 50% from just four years earlier. Meanwhile ticket revenue has stagnated from increases of 7.2% annually from 2004 through 2008 to just 2.1% from 2008 through 2012, according to Team Marketing Report. Even as the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers build stadiums, franchises in smaller markets struggle just to get people into their buildings.

Even in their relationship with the most seemingly stable professional sports organization in the U.S., fans should be excused for feeling as if they're still on shaky ground. For everybody who isn't super stoked for their fantasy football draft or cueing up Hank Williams Jr.'s Are You Ready For Some Football for that first football Sunday, we present the following five ways the NFL is just going to mess with you this season:

1. It will threaten to move your team.

Oh, that can't possibly happen, right? An NFL team hasn't moved since the Houston Oilers made tracks for Tennessee in 1997. It's not as if the NFL spends every waking minute looking at that huge, vacant market in Los Angeles and its detailed plan for a stadium and wonders how it can get one of its underperforming teams to move there.

It's also not as if every owner in the NFL looks at Los Angeles as a political crowbar it can use to pry a new stadium out of local taxpayers. Sure, Vikings ownership used that ploy to rope Minnesota into paying for its new digs. Yes, relocation may have played a slight role in Buffalo and New York State coughing up $226 million to refurbish Ralph Wilson Stadium. But that's the end of it, right?

Not even close. Fans in St. Louis have had to endure Rams ownership griping about the $700 million "first-tier" stadium they were promised by 2015 and their threats to move the team out of the city into the St. Louis County suburbs or beyond. They already did a long stint in Los Angeles from 1946 to 1994, but the fact that they'd be returning to the city and only getting closer to their NFC West rivals doesn't seem to sit poorly with NFL owners.

They'd better act fast, since San Diego is basically kicking the Chargers in L.A.'s direction. With the Spanos family of owners crying for a publicly funded stadium, the NFL refusing to give the city a Super Bowl until a stadium is built and Mayor Bob Filner and his constituents telling the Spans family to forget it, the odds of the Chargers staying don't look great right now. Chula Vista and Escondido have made bids, but the Chargers just had their first losing season since 2003 and blacked out half their home games from local television in 2003.

If neither of those pan out, there's always the Jacksonville Jaguars. They play in one of the league's smallest markets, they tarp off seats at EverBank Stadium that they've accepted that they can't fill and they struggle to keep games sold out -- though they have done just that for a few years now. The new owners say a move isn't happening, but the NFL is nothing but an organization of team owners looking to raise league revenue. Moving a team from one of its smallest markets to potentially one of its biggest would be the simplest route from Point A to Point B. Jacksonville just isn't letting go that easily. Speaking of blackouts, though ...

2. It will black out your televised games

From a fan's perspective, those 17.3 million people who bought tickets to NFL games last year represent a 98% sales rate driving an average ticket price of $78. To owners, that's still 1 million fans shy of a full-season sellout and $100 average ticket prices.

That's the fundamental difference of opinion you're dealing with when it comes to the NFL's blackout rule. Last year, the NFL kept 15 games off television in their home markets, down from 16 last year and 26 in 2010. To the owners, that's great progress and a step toward letting the market sort out the system that keeps home games off television in the event that they don't sell out. It also means great things for local revenue, which owners love to keep as high as possible to line their own team's pockets.

To fans and the politicians who represent them, even one blackout is too many when fans have already shelled out public money for stadiums. It's also unacceptable after the NFL tweaked its blackout policy last summer summer to allow teams to declare a sellout and keep games on the air once ticket sales hit 85% of their home stadium's capacity. Under the old rule, which dates back to an act of Congress in 1961, home games couldn't be shown on TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium if non-premium tickets weren't completely sold out 72 hours before kickoff.

That switch wasn't mandatory, however, and it was up to the teams' owners to decide if they wanted to adopt that 85% threshold and pay a greater percentage of ticket revenue to opposing teams as a result. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings also joined in, but that didn't prevent two of those four teams from blacking out games in 2012.

The Bucs blacked out five games in 2012, the most in the NFL last season. They've blacked out 18 of their last 24 home games despite taking the blackout deal and lowering ticket prices, giving the NFL just some idea of how badly the recession hit Tampa over the last few years.

The San Diego Chargers' war of attrition with their fans and host city led to four blackouts last year. Given the animosity between everyone involved and the Chargers' descent from perennial playoff contenders to lost losers, don't expect the San Diego sun to end the blackouts anytime soon.

Blackouts are almost expected of the Buffalo Bills, who fail to sell out a few games at the end of each season because they're expected to fill a 73,000-seat stadium in the dead of winter. Similar expectations apply the Oakland Raiders, who've made blackouts something of a pastime since moving back to Oakland and the hopelessly outdated Coliseum in the early 1990s.

The Cincinnati Bengals, however, have made the playoff in each of the past two years and have been playing on a level few expected after Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson left town. Still, ownership's horrendous stadium deal that costs Hamilton County taxpayers nearly $35 million a year hasn't stopped it from seeking handouts for renovations. That's not making the locals any more likely to fork over money for tickets.

3. It will jack up prices

Even though NFL owners say ticket sales are "flat," you'll notice that prices have still gone up, on average, every year for the past decade.

That $78.38 fans pay, on average, hasn't gone down a bit since 2004. The $443.93 it costs to take a family of four to the game and park, get souvenirs and buy food and drink increased 3.9% from 2011 and also hasn't seen much downward momentum in the past decade.

You'd think the league's TV deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, ESPN and DirecTV would encourage NFL owners to incentivize the live-game experience a bit, especially since high-definition television is at least partially responsible for declining attendance. That, however, is a complete misreading of owners' motivations.

Again, NFL owners are in this to maximize revenue. Every team outside of the Green Bay Packers -- which is publicly owned by more than 112,000 shareholders -- is run with the initial purpose of making money for its owners. Should those owners be good enough to hire competent general managers to pick gifted personnel that lead to playoff appearances and the occasional championship, that's great.

But by and large, it's about money. That thinking goes all the way down the line to DirecTV and its Sunday ticket rates to secondary-market ticket sellers, who are jacking up ticket prices to an average of nearly $204 a pop, according to ticket resale site VividSeats.com. That's more than two and a half times the average and jumps to as high as $575 for the league's most high-demand game: a Nov. 24 matchup between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos that pits quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning against each other for the first time in years.

If owners can't get money from you by getting you through the door, they'll go after your tax money instead. The Atlanta Falcons' home in the Georgia Dome was built only 22 years ago with $214 million taxpayer money and just got $300 million in renovations in 2007 and 2008, but team owner Arthur Blank is already looking for $300 million to $400 million in public funding for a new, tech-savvy stadium. Even if you live in Georgia and never attend a Falcons game, chances are you'll still pay for them to play in your state.

4. It will squeeze you in the name of security

For the sake of argument, let's say you see those ticket prices and still think it's well worth paying just to see your favorite team in the confines of that huge building your tax dollars paid for.

Great, that's awesome. Now you just can't bring anything into the game with you.

Security has been tightening since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but the window for stadium entry is narrowing even further. Backpacks are now banned from stadiums -- not surprising, considering their role in the Boston Marathon bombings -- but purses larger than a clutch, coolers, briefcases, cinch bags and camera bags are all out for 2013 too. Even seat cushions are a no-go.

So what is allowed? Clear plastic, vinyl or PVC bags that are roughly 12 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches. One-gallon clear plastic freezer bags are also OK, but the NFL is quick to note that its NFLShop.com will be selling official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bags to help ease the transition. That will be $9.95, please.

There's also going to be a secondary security perimeter around stadiums, meaning you're now going through two layers of security just to get in. While we're sure that's reassuring to fans who see stadiums seating 65,000+ as giant potential targets, chances are this isn't going to do wonders for the league's plan to put more people in the seats. If anything, it's making a stronger argument for watching from the safety and comfort of your own home on that high-definition TV with a better view of the action.

5. It'll turn your town upside down

The New York metro area is still picking up the pieces from Superstorm Sandy. Is it ready to host New York's first-ever Super Bowl in February?

Let's just say if having your seat cushion confiscated by stadium security makes you edgy, you probably don't want to see New Jersey's "mass casualty" drills in preparation for Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2. It's perhaps the most jarring example of what the New York-New Jersey megalopolis has been going through in the run-up to the big game.

Exit ramps, roads and whole bridges and overpasses along Route 3 near Met Life Stadium have been refurbished or rebuilt. The Secaucus Transfer Station in the Meadowlands has worked on increasing capacity to accommodate the more than 20,000 riders expected to take NJ Transit trains to the game. Surrounding hotels are making upgrades.

Locals, meanwhile, are deciding whether to stick around and brave the commute or burn some vacation days, rent out their place to ticket holders and clear out of town as quickly as possible. With 11,000 hotel rooms already blocked off for the event and big venues such as Chelsea Piers and the James A. Farley Post Office already booked for huge parties, both the NFL and New York metro area residents alike could be bracing for either one huge winter party or one unparalleled pain in the posterior.

Expect it to be heavily magnified tabloid fodder well before media day.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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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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