Why the NFL Finally Lifted Its Blackout Rules

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Patrick Smith / Getty Images

To put into context how outdated the NFL’s blackout rules were, they were written in 1973 — the same year George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $12 million.

The Yankees are now worth an estimated $2.5 billion, which if you can believe it is somehow less than the NFL owners get from TV networks to broadcast games each season. The NFL pockets a combined $3 billion from NBC, CBS, ESPN, and Fox every year as part of a contract so lucrative it reduces the most valuable franchise in pro sports to pinstriped panhandlers.

The NFL this week lifted its archaic blackout rules for one season, suspending the practice of not televising games on local TV when teams failed to sell enough tickets. For 40 years, football games were not broadcast in local markets if the home stadium was not sold out within 72 hours prior to kickoff.

Dolphins owner Steven Ross bought up unsold tickets for years so his team could be seen on television, so naturally he was in favor of lifting blackouts. All but one NFL team, the Bengals, voted to eliminate blackouts, for reasons involving algebra too complicated to get into here.
Even though NFL ticket sales have declined since their peak in 2007 as more people watch at home and on mobile devices now than ever before, no team has actually faced a blackout since 2013, when only two of the 256 regular season games were taken off local TV. Making next season’s otherwise lackadaisical Bills vs. Jaguars matchup in London an online exclusive broadcast will only continue to evolve the ways America’s most popular sport is consumed, and pull people further from the stadiums.

Pro football is more of a TV show now than ever before, and an incredibly popular one: Of the 30 most-watched TV programs last fall, 26 of them were football games (the other four were Game 7 of the World Series, two episodes of NCIS, and The Big Bang Theory). more people watched the 2014 NFL Draft than tune in for playoff games in other sports (including Game 7 of the World Series). The Draft, with 45.7 million viewers, more than doubled the 23.5 million people that tuned in for MLB’s grand finale.

Meanwhile, the live experience is dwarfed by billion-dollar broadcast deals, Sunday Ticket satellite packages, and the ever-changing RedZone channel, which has done to football what crack did to cocaine in the 80s, offering fans a freebase alternative that spikes their Sunday football high for a fraction of the cost of attending an actual game via constant, commercial-free, live look-ins for fans who can’t stand to spend 19 seconds away from the action. Instead of lugging out to the stadium for an entire day devoted to just one game, you can now watch the most important parts of up to 16 games in real time each weekend without changing out of your pajamas or sitting in traffic.
The phenomenon has become so popular that the Jaguars built something called a “Fan Cave” at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville that features walls of flatscreen TVs where you can monitor RedZone feeds instead of watching the actual Jags game being played outside. Perhaps NFL teams will throw up their hands and stream RedZone on the Jumbotron for the three costumed Raiders fans that still attend games in the not-too-distant future.
Supply and demand is the fuel of any economy. In today’s sports marketplace, football is consumed so much more than anything else, the supply lines to paying customers are being altered and outdated policies like the NFL’s blackout rules are being reconsidered. And that’s precisely why the Yankees, once the gold standard of wealth in sports, are now the equivalent of the change stuck between the cushions of the NFL’s couch. 

You can look for it when the RedZone broadcast is over.

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