The NFL Should Bench Its Blackout Rules

Posted on October 14th, 2005 in Commentary,Sports,Television by EngineerBoy

Are you ready for some football? Too bad...

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.

Official NFL Blackout Rules

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).

Blackout Policy

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.

  1. 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.

  • All other television markets (including secondary blackout markets). Network affiliates in these markets will receive three games on Sunday afternoon, two on the doubleheader network (one early and one late) and one game on the single game network (either early or late).
  • 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.

    6 Responses to 'The NFL Should Bench Its Blackout Rules'

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    1. msc said,

      on November 9th, 2008 at 1:00 pm

      If live in the NY/NJ area you hardly ever get the third game, the NFL is nuts with its home team protection racket. The stadium attendence will not suffer if third game is on tv!

    2. James said,

      on August 14th, 2010 at 3:35 pm

      I didn’t realize that the NFL actually blacked out some out of market games in a local market, meaning that some local Fox or CBS are showing oh, let’s say elderly knitting while an exciting game is going on elsewhere.
      That’s just stupid. Why can’t both networks show a doubleheader every week in every market if they want to? Limiting exposure in today’s cable satalite, internet world just means people will have plenty of other things to do besides go to the local game.

      Plus it’s possible to find unauthorized live streaming of most major sports games on the internet if you know where to look. Limiting the number of legal broadcasts will only take away from those providers while turning off all but the most die hard fans.

    3. EngineerBoy said,

      on August 14th, 2010 at 4:46 pm


      I agree 100%, and I still don’t understand what the NFL is thinking. One thing that has changed since I posted the original article is that the NFL has really started focusing on the NFL Network, and I wonder if part of their long-term plan might be to try to get the majority of games on their own network, or something. Otherwise, I agree, they are driving away all but the most die-hard fans by trying to force them to watch the team that is geographically closest (assuming they even sell out at home).

      I keep waiting for NFL to change, but they never do, and in fact seem to keep making things worse as time passes.


    4. Richard said,

      on August 15th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

      They black out their own network now too. I could be watching the 49ers preseason game on NFL network right now, except it is blacked out, and I live in Tennessee. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the NFL’s blackout rules.

    5. Matt said,

      on August 17th, 2010 at 10:25 pm

      This is a really well-written piece on this subject. I completely agree that the NFL is shooting itself in the foot with this policy. I’m not sure how blacking out games the local team is playing is going to increase interest in the team. Sounds kind of backwards to me lol.

      Also stupid is that Jacksonville is allowed to cover up seats and create an artificially low capacity number to help the team avoid blackouts (even then it hasn’t helped too much, but having this rule and then allowing teams to cover up seats and not count them is so beyond stupid it’s laughable).

      Back in the old days, MLB teams oftentimes did not broadcast games on local TV because they felt it hurt home attendance. While this may be true, hurting your TV audience is a lot worse of a situation to be in. Also, by not having games on TV you are eliminating any chance you have of bringing in fans who are curious about the team, but have not taken the dive to become “fans.” And those who may not even realize they like the team and/or sport before they came across a game on TV.

      MLB today also has the stupid rule for its online offerings – – in that games are blacked out in so many markets. Like when I lived in Knoxville, Tenn., Cincinnati Reds games were blacked out even though none of their games were on local TV. I understood Atlanta Braves games being blacked out because they were on local TV, but Reds games made no sense whatsoever. And I believe there are around six (six!) teams who have games blacked out throughout the state of Iowa even though most of them don’t even broadcast games there.

      Some of these leagues need to get a clue.

    6. joe fan said,

      on October 10th, 2010 at 5:29 pm

      As an Alameda county resident, I have been paying for the Oakland Colosseum upgrade though our taxes. (thank you Don Perata).
      So , I buy the NFL ticket on Direct TV and low and behold black rules still apply . Still !
      Strike two .
      The NFL is filthy rich with all TV endorsements intact .
      Personal Seat License (PSL’s) has it’s flaws.
      Strike three. I’m out !

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