Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 3, 2014

NFL blackmails fans with threats of playoff blackouts

Tom Lindley CNHI News Service
Greensburg Daily News

---- — The National Football League has proven it is good at blocking and tackling. Once again it shows that it’s not bad when it comes to blackmail, either.

That’s been clear in recent days with news that three of this weekend’s playoff games may not be televised in their local markets if all the tickets aren’t sold. Hence, fans in Green Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati must pay up or miss out.

It’s the ultimate threat – and punishment – for fans who support their teams throughout the season then get gouged when games mean the most and rewards are the highest.

Never mind that the majority of tickets have been sold, and the mammoth stadiums will be near capacity. The NFL’s local TV blackout rule is about the game’s image and the opportunity to wiggle every dollar from a fan’s wallet.

In Green Bay and Cincinnati, the teams should offer ticket buyers perks to attend this weekend’s games. At Lambeau Field, the temperature is expected to hover around zero for Sunday afternoon’s game between the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers.

Though it will be warmer in Cincinnati on Sunday, Paul Brown Stadium, which sits along the chilly Ohio River, is still expected to get the coldest temperatures of the year and perhaps a snowstorm.

Granted, playing conditions inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday will be balmy by comparison.

But finding entertainment dollars in the family budget only days after another expensive Christmas and a night out on New Year’s Eve might test the skills of an accountant anywhere.

There’s nothing new about the NFL’s annual guilt trip. It’s just another league tradition.

The blackout rule was instituted in 1973 and has become the bane of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has called the practice archaic and poor policy. That’s especially true, he says, in markets where teams have used public financing to build stadiums.

“I think that’s outrageous,” McCain said during a Senate hearing last spring. “Now, if that stadium is not taxpayer financed, then that owner can do anything they want to. But if the taxpayers paid for them, by God, I think taxpayers ought to be able to see the game whether they sell out the stadium or not.”

McCain’s bid to end blackouts in places with publicly funded stadiums hasn’t gotten far in the legislative maze, but how many bills have on Capitol Hill?

What’s significant is that the rule is getting prominent scrutiny.

Even last month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed doing away with blackouts in all pro sports.

“There is evidence that after nearly 40 years, the Sports Blackout Rule has outlived its relevance and utility,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in a statement.

What’s amusing in this replay of the blackout scenario is how the NFL caters to large corporate interests, then puts the pressure on blue collar fans to save the day.

This week the Colts were frantically trying to sell a remaining 4,500 tickets for Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, with prices starting at $56. The Bengals listed about 8,000 tickets for sale earlier in the week, with face values of about $100 apiece, for the matchup with the San Diego Chargers.

The situation was about the same in Green Bay, where the Packers had yet to sell 7,500 tickets, with prices for most of those falling between $100 and $125.

Given the weather expected across the Midwest, it’s not surprising that some fans prefer to stay home. In fact, it’s the quality of today’s high-definition televisions that leads some fans to argue that the best seats for the games are in their living rooms.

Nevertheless, the idea of the NFL not televising a game in a local market is unconscionable. It hasn’t happened since 2002 and would be a black eye for a league so eager to protect its reputation as America’s favorite sport.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.