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Report: League willing to relax blackout rules

Bengals Grim Again Football

The Cincinnati Bengals play the San Francisco 49ers in an NFL football game in front of a crowd that was at about two-thirds full of stadium capacity, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, in Cincinnati. San Francisco won 13-8. Two more players are facing suspensions. The rookie quarterback is starting to play like one. And the fans don’t seem to much care, judging by all those empty seats.(AP Photo/Tom Uhlman)


For years, the NFL has worried about how improvements to the at-home product will impact ticket sales.

And apparently, the answer was frightening enough to cause a fundamental change.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the league will give teams flexibility to avoid television blackouts, allowing games to be broadcast in their local markets with as few as 85 percent of tickets sold. The 100 percent sell-out barrier was a ruse anyway, since teams or sponsors often bought tickets at reduced rates to preserve local broadcasts. Only 16 games were blacked out last season.

“The at-home experience has gotten better and cheaper, while the in-stadium experience feels like it hasn’t,” Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of ventures and business operations told the Journal. “That’s a trend that we’ve got to do something about.”

With 10 teams filling their stadiums to capacity or more, there are clubs that want to try to add seats without the risk of alienating local fans. But 20 of the league’s 32 teams are advertising season tickets for sale, and the Jets just reduced the price of more than 10,000 upper tier seats.

But while reducing the blackout rules ostensibly only makes it easier to enjoy the product without buying a ticket, the league is also working to make the in-stadium experience better, with measures including free wireless internet in every stadium. That could allow fans in the stands to hear miked-up players and see the same replays officials see.

The reality remains, television dollars are more important to teams than ticket sales, so while they want to preserve the income they’ve always enjoyed, they also know keeping their television partners happy by keeping games on the air is important as well.