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U.S. Senator from Ohio calls for end to “failed” blackout policy


Six of the Cincinnati Bengals’ seven home games this season will be blacked out locally. One of the two U.S. Senators from Ohio believes that number should be zero.

But not because he believes all non-premium tickets should be purchased for the games at Paul Brown Stadium. Senator Sherrod Brown believes that the NFL should abandon the policy that requires non-sellouts to be blacked out in the local market.

The NFL’s blackout policy is unnecessary,” Brown said in a statement, via USA Today. “The NFL is poised to earn record profits while the Cincinnati taxpayers who built the stadium will be watching reruns rather than touchdown runs. The rule is an outdated relic that doesn’t serve the NFL or the fans.”

Brown also pointed out that the league’s new broadcast TV contracts reflect a 60-percent increase over prior amounts paid by the networks. Thus, Brown believes that the league shouldn’t hinge the decision to televise a team’s home games upon the team’s ability to sell tickets.

The league, not surprisingly, defends the blackout policy, which was adopted in 1973. (Prior to that, home games simply weren’t televised at all in the local market, with or without a sold-out stadium.)

“The blackout policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets, keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement to USA Today. “Playing in full stadiums with thousands of fans is an important part of what makes NFL football an exciting and special entertainment event, both live and on television. We have a limited number of games and do not want to erode the incentive to buy tickets. Every market receives more than 100 NFL games on free TV every year, regardless of the blackout policy.”

That’s fine, but in this day and age how many people actually buy tickets to the local team’s home games due to a concern that, if they don’t, they won’t be able to see the game at all? There will always be people who choose to attend games, and there will always be people who choose to stay home and watch whatever other game they can find on TV, or simply wait for the highlights.

The challenge for the league is to entice enough people in every market to choose to pay to attend the games. And that means finding ways to make the in-stadium experience better (or, in the case of controlling the behavior of drunks and/or idiots and/or drunken idiots, not as bad).

It also means setting price points that will ensure a full stadium, based on the dynamics of each market. In some places, it could mean building smaller stadiums. While it’s indeed preferable to broadcast games with a full house of fans in the background, non-sellouts are still televised in other markets, regardless of whether the stands are full or empty.

So maybe Senator Brown is right. Maybe the time has come to abandon the blackout policy. As the rule approaches its 40th birthday, the only thing we know is that the blackout policy should at least be fully scrutinized, given that the manner in which folks consume video content has changed dramatically in the past four decades.