NFL Blackout

nfl blackout

Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. The policy is intended to encourage full attendance. Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the home city of origin regardless of whether they were sold out. This policy, dating back to the NFL’s emerging television years, resulted in home-city blackouts even during championship games.

For instance, the 1958 ‘Greatest Game Ever Played’ between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was unavailable to New York fans despite the sellout. Many fans rented hotel rooms in Connecticut to watch the game on Hartford TV, a practice that continued for Giants games through 1972. Similarly, all Super Bowl games prior to the seventh edition were unavailable in the host city’s market.

Although that policy was successfully defended in court numerous times, Congress passed legislation requiring the NFL to impose the 72-hour deadline. The league will sometimes change this deadline to 48 hours if there are only a few thousand tickets left unsold; much more rarely, they will occasionally extend this to 24 hours in special cases.

Alternatively, some NFL teams have arrangements with local television stations or businesses to purchase unsold tickets. Tickets in premium club sections have been excluded from the blackout rule in past years, as have unused tickets allocated to the visiting team. The Jacksonville Jaguars have even gone further and closed off a number of sections at their home EverBank Field to reduce the number of tickets they would need to sell. EverBank Field is one of the largest in the NFL, as it was built to also accommodate the annual Florida-Georgia game and Gator Bowl and was expanded for Super Bowl XXXIX even though it draws from one of the smallest markets in the league. The NFL requires that closing off sections be done uniformly for every home game, including playoff games, in a given season. This prevents teams from trying to sell out the entire stadium only when they expect to be able to do so.

The NFL defines a team’s market area as ‘local’ if it is within a 75-mile radius of the team’s home stadium. Therefore, a blackout affects any market where the terrestrial broadcast signal of an affiliate station, under normal conditions, penetrates into the 75-mile radius. These affiliates are determined before the season, and do not change as the season progresses. Some remote primary media markets, such as Denver and Phoenix, may cover that entire radius, so that the blackout would not affect any other affiliates.

However, in some instances a very tiny portion of a distant city’s market area can be within the 75-mile radius of a different city, thus leading to blackouts well beyond the targeted area. The most notable example is the Syracuse market’s blackout of Buffalo Bills games because a small section of the town of Italy of Yates County containing a handful of people lies within the 75-mile radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium while the entirety of the remainder of the Syracuse market lies outside of it. At the time Yates County was part of Syracuse DMA but it was switched to Rochester DMA because of exurb expansion with more and more immediate Rochester area employees were living in Yates county and traveling to the Rochester are for events.

The NFL does allow in some cases for secondary markets to go beyond the 75 mile radius in part to help draw fans to attend the game. Some of these exceptions are in Charlotte where many of its secondary markets lie outside the 75 mile radius (Raleigh). Another exception to the 75-mile rule is the Green Bay Packers’ market area. It stretches out to both the Green Bay and Milwaukee television markets (the team’s radio flagship station is in Milwaukee, and selected Packer home games were played in Milwaukee until 1994). Unofficially, and to a smaller extent, it also reaches the Escanaba/Marquette, Michigan market (which is actually a Detroit Lions stronghold) due to the presence of translator and satellite stations as well as extended cable coverage of Green Bay stations north into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

However, blackouts have never been required; the Packers’ home stadium, Lambeau Field, boasts a five-decade long streak of sellouts and 80,000 names on its season ticket waiting list (with very low turnover each year, thus making it difficult to get tickets; it is common practice in Wisconsin for a name to be put on the list when a person is born, as well as to purchase tickets for road games). The Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins also have sellout streaks that predate the current blackout rules, and so have not had any of their home games blacked out since 1972 either (each of these teams also have long waiting lists for season tickets).

Similarly, no Super Bowl has ever been unavailable in the market of origin since the new blackout rules came into effect. Every Super Bowl except the first was a sellout, and, with the game’s high-profile status, tickets sell out pretty quickly, and so a blackout is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Another policy to encourage sellouts, is that no other NFL game can air opposite the local club’s broadcast on the primary market’s affiliate.

Critics claim that these blackout policies are largely ineffective in creating sold out, filled stadiums. They contend that there are other factors that prevent sellouts, such as high ticket prices and low enthusiasm for a losing team. Furthermore, blackouts hurt the league; without the television exposure, it becomes more difficult for those teams with low attendance and few sellouts to increase their popularity and following as the exposure decreases. Conversely, the NFL has sold out well over 90 percent of games in recent seasons. Additionally, many teams sell out their entire regular season schedule before it begins (usually through season-ticket sales), and so there is no threat of a blackout in those markets.

In 2005, for the first time in its history, the NFL lifted the blackout policies for a team: the New Orleans Saints. Due to damage by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints split their home games between Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and the Alamodome in San Antonio. Baton Rouge is a secondary Saints market and is subject to blackouts when games at the Superdome carried by over-the-air networks do not sell out.

The blackout policies extend even to the Pro Bowl; if that game is not sold out, it is unavailable in the home media market. From 1980 through 2009, the game was played in Honolulu, making the applicable market the entire state of Hawaii. The 2010 game was played in the Miami area.

Due to decreasing ticket sales, the league significantly softened its blackout policy in 2009. Though the traditional rules still apply, the league is using some of its new media features to provide access to untelecasted games. For instance, the league will not subject its ‘RedZone’ channel to any blackouts. In addition, complete live games will be made available for free online on the Monday (except Monday Night Football), Tuesday, and Wednesday following the game if the game is blacked out, using the league’s Game Rewind package.

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