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New blackout rule forces tough business decisions


The good news for many fans is that the NFL has relaxed its longstanding blackout rule. The bad news for some teams is that the NFL has relaxed its longstanding blackout rule.

The ability to relax the requirement that non-premium seats beat sold at least 72 hours before kickoff from 100 percent to 85 percent comes with a price, and with a dilemma.

It’s not a week-by-week sliding scale, allowing a team to stay at 100 percent when the Steelers comes to town and push it to 85 percent when hosting a far less popular team (we’d mention a few of them, but we all know who they are and I don’t need their five or six fans sending me nasty emails this morning). Instead, teams must pick their percentage poison before the season begins.

And if they guess too low, the home team must increase the percentage for every extra ticket above the reduced minimum that goes to the visiting-team pool from 34 cents on the dollar to 50. If they guess too high, the pressure will be greater than ever for the home team to buy the remaining non-premium tickets at 34 cents on the dollar, a previously overlooked option that has gotten more traction and attention in recent years.

As a result, teams that typically sell all tickets but periodically have to scramble and/or suffer through a blackout will be inclined to not reduce the percentage below 100, opting instead to bite the bullet when the tickets don’t move. Likewise, teams that chronically are well below the threshold will take the full 15-percent reduction, hope to sell those tickets, and gladly give up an extra 16 cents on the dollar for every ticket sold above the minimum -- if/when that ever happens.

But teams who have struggled to sell all tickets may be more likely to see this as a curse than a blessing. If the team struggles and tickets don’t move in late November and December and the team explains that it opted before the season began to keep its limit at 100 percent, the media and the fans will complain loudly -- especially if the team chooses not to buy the tickets that aren’t selling. And any time the ticket prices go up (especially in the cheap seats), the media and the fans will now wonder whether the team is passing along pre-emptively the 16-cents-per-dollar cost of guessing too low.

Then again, it’s not as if all teams have done a great job of setting the right price points in the past. If they did, every game would be sold out because every team would understand exactly where the line falls between selling enough and selling not enough. The new blackout rule introduces a new complication that, regardless of the details, will make the local media and the fans demand that the teams do whatever they have to do to get the home games televised locally.