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NFL has no plans to lighten blackout rules

RACHEL COHEN | 09/23/09 05:48 PM | AP

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In this Aug. 29, 2009 photo, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford drops back to pass against the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter of a exhibition NFL football game at Ford Field in Detroit. o far, only Jacksonville has had its home opener blacked out. In Week 1 this season, Arizona, Cincinnati and Oakland needed 24-hour extensions from the NFL to sell out their games and avoid blackouts. Detroit and San Diego did the same the following week. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

NEW YORK — When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the NFL waived its television blackout policy so Saints fans could watch even if games moved to Baton Rouge didn't sell out.

Now, under extraordinary circumstances of a different sort – a recession that has made football tickets an unaffordable luxury for many – the league isn't budging.

The NFL says it has no plans to lift its blackout rules because of the economy. So if games don't sell out – as could be the case in up to three cities this weekend – local fans won't be able to watch on TV, whether at home or in a bar.

"People are quick to say, 'Can you make an exception here?'" said Howard Katz, the league's senior vice president for broadcasting and media operations. "We're trying to be really cautious and make sure we do the right thing for long-term growth."

He acknowledged tickets are steep – an average of $74.99 this season – and times are hard. "To the person who lost his or her job in Detroit, this is every bit as difficult a situation to deal with as Katrina might have been in New Orleans," Katz said.

But he argued it's impossible to know how each fan arrives at the decision to buy a ticket or not and said the blackout policy is crucial to filling stadiums.

Under the rule, a game must be sold out 72 hours in advance before it may be aired in any TV market within 75 miles of the stadium. Club seats and suites don't count in the equation.

In this season's opening week, Arizona, Cincinnati and Oakland needed 24-hour extensions from the NFL to sell out their games and avoid blackouts. Detroit and San Diego did the same for Week 2.

Thus far, only the Jaguars have had a game blacked out. They were so far from selling out 67,164-seat Jacksonville Municipal Stadium last weekend they didn't even bother requesting an extension.

Detroit, Oakland and San Diego could be in danger of blackouts this weekend.

The NFL is allowing fans whose local teams' games are blacked out to watch replays online for free – though not until after midnight. Fans will be able to view the delayed broadcasts on NFL.com for 72 hours, except during "Monday Night Football."

Blackouts could become a much bigger issue this season than in recent years. There were only 38 over the last four seasons, a span covering more than 1,000 games.

The NFL's policy had its intended effect on Ted McDowell, a 47-year-old construction worker from Jacksonville. When the blackout was announced for the home opener against Arizona, he broke down and bought tickets.

"Look, I'd rather be on my couch, watching this game in HD and saving some money," he said. "I'm sure I'm not the only one, either. But it's not going to be like that this year. It's going to be a tough year with the economy like it is.

"But if you're a real Jags fan," he added, "you'll find a way."

Katz conceded there's no way to measure exactly how the blackout policy influences ticket sales. An outside study of the 1996-97 NFL season concluded that the policy harms the community as a whole.

Marketing professors William P. Putsis and Subrata K. Sen calculated that teams in danger of having games blacked out would on average increase their revenue by up to about $400,000. They estimated that the value to all the area's fans of watching those games on TV would be much higher.

The study suggested lawmakers should pressure the NFL to change the policy. The government wields that influence in the form of an exemption to antitrust laws, which allows the league to negotiate its lucrative TV contracts as a cartel.

"The only way teams might do it voluntarily would be if it might make sense from a public relations standpoint," said Putsis, who now teaches at the University of North Carolina's business school.

There is precedent for a public outcry spurring Congress to get involved. In 2007, fans around the country were about to miss history: The New England Patriots were trying to become the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season, and their game with the New York Giants on NFL Network wasn't available in most homes.

Two prominent members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell threatening to reconsider the antitrust exemption. The league reversed course and allowed CBS and NBC to air the game nationally, too.

But that was a highly anticipated matchup involving two popular teams with large regional fan bases. The franchises in danger of blackouts tend to be struggling squads in smaller markets, where the public backlash may not make much of a ripple.

If the Jaguars, 0-2 heading into Sunday's game at Houston, start winning, that would make all the difference in ticket sales, Jacksonville fan Adrian Velez said at the home opener.

"It's been that way my whole life here," said Velez, a 24-year-old waiter from nearby Orange Park. "When we win, the stands are full. When we lose, we have blackouts. It's like that other places, too. It's just worse here because of the (small) market."

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