The biggest change to the NFL's blackout policy in 40 years reportedly happened recently when owners voted to allow games to be shown in a local market if the stadium is only 85 percent full. The previous policy required 100 percent of non-premium tickets to be sold before the game would be shown locally. Here's what The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday:
Team owners have passed a resolution that starting this season will allow for local broadcasts of NFL games even when as few as 85 percent of tickets are sold. Under the new rule, each team has more flexibility to establish its own seat-sales benchmark as long as it is 85 percent or higher. To discourage teams from setting easy benchmarks, teams will be forced to share more of the revenue when they exceed it.
The NFL is not responding to media inquiries on the change. Still, it's a huge victory for Sports Fans Coalition and others who have been calling attention to the unethical and counterproductive nature of these blackouts. And it's welcome news in cities like Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Oakland, and San Diego.
Since Sports Fans Coalition was founded in 2009, and one of our primary missions has been to end blackouts. Professional football has been blacking out games since 1953. And for nearly just as long, fans have opposed the practice and have sought ways around blackouts. Consider this, from Stephen Lowe, author of The Kid on the Sandlot:
In the early 1960s the Stratford Motor Inn, in Stratford, Connecticut, gained a name for itself as a provider of bootleg TV. With its 50-foot-antenna, the motel could receive a signal from Hartford carrying New York Giants games. Thus, for Giants fans willing to drive to Stratford, a "big, beautiful private room, a 21-inch television set ... [and] plenty of glasses and ice" could be reserved for $10.35, though there was a limit of four to a room.
These days, motivated fans mostly rely on bootleg Internet broadcasts to see blacked out games, which is why the NFL supported the Stop Online Piracy Act and other draconian Internet censorship pieces of legislation.
So why the change now? We're still waiting for the NFL to explain why blackouts were so critical to the NFL's business model that it dispatched Roger Goodell to Washington to lobby the FCC against changing its blackout rules. Or why Goodell defended the policy at his most recent annual State of the League press conference at the Super Bowl.
"We want our stadiums full, and we want to continue to stay on free television," Goodell said in February. "And we're fortunate to be able to extend those television agreements to stay on free television, which is unique within professional sports, and that has to be balanced with driving people to your stadiums with offering your games on free television. I think the policy has served us very well over four-plus decades."
Clearly, it wasn't serving the NFL well. Perhaps they finally read what nine top sports economists wrote in their February filing with the FCC: "Blackouts have no significant effect on ticket sales in the NFL."
It remains to be seen what kind of impact this new policy will have on fans in those cities that have been plagued by blackouts. Since the new policy reportedly allows owners to set their own benchmarks, some owners may be more lenient than others. If the new policy has no effect and blackouts persist, we will be there to make some noise.
Still, in the fight to end sports blackouts, the fans just scored a huge victory.