The NFL has blackout rules that impact what games can be televised in which areas. If your TV provider does not broadcast within 75 miles of a city with an NFL team, these rules do not apply and your local affiliates can show any of the games available from their parent network.
However, if your TV provider broadcasts within 75 miles of an NFL city, you are definitely impacted by these rules, which are shown in complete detail at the bottom of this article. Functionally, the blackout rules work as follows:
Rule Number One: If the home team is playing at home, and does not sell out by 72 hours prior to game time, then the local affiliates cannot show this game. The purpose of this rule is to get more people to the stadium to watch the game, which benefits the team owner. You see, the NFL divides up TV revenues among the teams, but the individual team owners get to keep all their stadium/ticket/concession revenues.
Rule Number Two: If the home team is playing at home and manages to sell out prior to 72 hours prior to game time, and the local affiliate shows the game, no other NFL games can be shown on other channels while the home team game is on. I guess that this rule is designed to drive more viewers to the affiliate/network showing the home team?
The stated purpose of these rules is to preserve/enhance the revenues for the home team (Rule Number One) and home network affiliate (Rule Number Two). However, this is extraordinarily flawed logic. I’ll give you an example of similarly flawed logic – my mother used to work for the County Tax Assessor/Collector Office, which also handled license plates for the State of Texas. At one time vanity plates were available for about $25, and the state sold a whole lot of them. Some brainiac in the state government said, hey, if we charged $75 each, we’d make three times more money! So they raised the price to $75, and ended up with vanity plate revenues that were half of what they were at $25, because so many people stopped buying the plates at the new, higher price. This is exactly what the NFL is doing…driving away lifelong fans (customers) in pursuit of short-term revenue (instead of long-term profit).
The NFL does not seem to understand that their short-sighted blackout rules, while perhaps improving revenue for a weekend, or maybe even a season, has the long-term effect of driving fans away from the NFL. You see, today the American consumer is inundated with entertainment options. Movies, TV, music, DVD, TiVo, Pay Per View, Movies on Demand, etc. And television now has 100’s of channels with thousands of programs, and although most are unwatchable (in my opinion), one man’s dreck is another man’s favorite show.
In the midst of this cacophony, the National Football League struggles to maintain viewership and relevance. However, all the mic’ed players and overhead cameras in the world will not change the one simple fact that people want to turn on the television and watch the team that they like. If the NFL would simply allow this to happen, things would be much better for them from a ratings and relevance perspective.
However, the NFL does not allow this to happen. I am a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, and I have been since I was a boy. I live in Houston, which once again has an NFL team (the Texans). There is absolutely no legal way for me to watch all of the Cowboy games on my television at home. I could buy a DirecTV Sunday Pass, but DirecTV still enforces the NFL blackout rules (described above). My local FOX affiliate has most of the Cowboy games on their broadcast schedule, however over the last two weeks, as the Cowboys have fought to make the playoffs, the blackout rules have forced FOX to not show the games here in Houston. This is because the home team (the Texans) have sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff, so the local CBS affiliate showed the Texans game, which meant the local FOX affiliate could not show the Cowboys game that was scheduled to be on at the same time.
Fan Apathy? Who Cares
There are two direct results of this. One is that I do not feel involved in the Cowboys playoff quest, because I didn’t see it. This means that I have had one more layer of my NFL-Fan tendency eroded away, making me a slightly less interested viewer, the same as has happened every single year for the last decade or so. The second is that my wife, who this season was on her way to becoming a football fan for the first time, has been “baited and switched” by being duped into caring about the outcome of Cowboys games, and then suddenly, as the Cowboys fought to make the playoffs and the games really mattered, been denied the ability to see the games.
These blackout rules do nothing but hurt the NFL and I do not understand why they cling to these outdated strategies. For instance, there is no way that I would ever buy a ticket to see the Texans play. This is solely because the cost of attending an NFL game is outrageous. If ticket prices were even close to reasonable (about ¼ of what they are now) I might think about it. But the Texans have been selling out nicely, so the NFL doesn’t need to worry about me buying tickets. I think I fit the mold of the average fan, in that not seeing my team on TV will never cause me to buy a ticket. The way the NFL will make money on me is through my value as a member of a desirable TV ratings demographic and through the few licensed products (caps, jerseys, etc) that I may buy. I can only presume that stadium game tickets are bought by either the very rich or the very rabid, and those people will go to the game regardless of if it’s televised. So there goes Rule #1.
Also, although I will certainly be a homer when it comes to the Texans, it is highly unlikely that I will ever become a die-hard fan. Maybe, but probably not. I get kind of insulted that the NFL thinks (seemingly) that if they force me to watch the home team, and deny me the ability to watch my preferred team, I will somehow become a revenue-producing fan-bot of the Texans. Not gonna happen. And denying me access to the Cowboys games on TV is certainly not going to make me watch and pay attention to a Texans game. So there goes Rule #2.
So why do these rules persist? Well, it’s possible that I have completely misinterpreted the whole situation, and severely underestimated the marketing savvy of the NFL while also severely underestimating the sheep-like tendencies of NFL fans. But I don’t think this is the case. What I think is that the NFL has been backed into a corner, squeezed between increasing costs (salaries, stadiums, etc.) and declining revenues (shooting themselves in the foot), and they are trying desperately to wring out every single penny of possible revenue in the short-term, while mortgaging their future by creating a passive, fair-weather fan base.
Winning Strategy: First Sow, Then Reap
It also seems that they have long-term contracts and agreements in place, with TV networks, players, unions, concessionaires, owners, etc, and these contracts do not give the NFL the ability to gracefully scale back their operations in the face of declining interest/revenues. It would be heartwarming to see the NFL lift the blackout rules and accept the resulting (temporarily) lower TV revenues, and to see the NFL owners agree to putting butts in the seats by offering true entertainment value, rather than by blackmailing the locals, and to see players agree to normalizing their salaries to match the new financial realities.
Lifting the blackout rules would certainly result in reduced revenues in the near-term, but it would, in my humble opinion, allow the NFL to preserve and expand their fan base, which would also preserve and expand their long-term financial success. Unfortunately all I expect from the NFL are higher ticket prices, another division realignment, more expansion teams, an 18 game season, the Super Bowl in March, and a butt-cam for the center.
All my rowdy friends are doing something else tonight.
Glossary of Terms
- Franchised Market – television market (ADI or DMA) that has an NFL franchise (i.e. Buffalo, NY or Phoenix, AZ).
- Secondary Blackout Market – television market in the home territory (with station(s) having signal penetration to within 75 miles of the game site) of an NFL franchise that is subject to blackout restrictions.
- Early Game – Game with kickoff at 1:05 p.m. (Eastern Time).
- Late Game – Game with kickoff at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. (Eastern Time).
To ensure an NFL club’s ability to sell all of its game tickets, and to make televised games more attractive to viewers through the presence of sellout crowds, the following policy is observed by the NFL:
For a home game to be aired locally in the franchised market and in any secondary blackout market(s), the game must be sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff. If the game is not a sellout by the 72 hour cutoff, both the home franchised market and the secondary markets of the carrying network will air an alternate game.
Number of Games in a Market
With regard to the number of NFL games seen in a particular market on a Sunday afternoon, there are three different situations.
- An NFL franchised market (i.e. New York, Chicago, Dallas, etc.).
On a week when the NFL team (or teams) in a market is on the ROAD Sunday, Monday or Thursday night or Saturday afternoon, the market will receive three Sunday afternoon games… two telecasts by the network with the doubleheader week and one game by the network with the single game week. When an NFL team in the market is playing at HOME on Sunday afternoon, the market will receive two games… one game on FOX and one game on CBS, regardless of which network has the doubleheader week. Unless 1) the home team’s assigned telecaster that day (CBS or FOX) is also on the doubleheader network and 2) the game is sold out 72 hours in advance. Then the three games would be the home team’s and two other games in the remaining early or late window.
Selection of Games to be Telecast Regionally
By network contract, all team road games must be telecast back to that team’s home territory (franchised market and secondary blackout markets).
Other than the above requirement, the televising network is the sole selector of which game(s) will be aired in all markets.