Bills’ fans must be careful what they wish for - The Buffalo News
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Bills’ fans must be careful what they wish for

Heaven help those who get what they want.

I wrote those words almost two years ago about the Western New Yorkers who wanted the Federal Communications Commission to end the policy that leads to blackouts of Buffalo Bills games that aren’t sold out 72 hours in advance.

Now that the outgoing FCC chairman has proposed eliminating the 40-year-old federal blackout rules that the National Football League has voluntarily used to set its blackout policy, I repeat the phrase.

If you missed Saturday’s News, acting chairman Mignon L. Clyburn said “changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games.”

I’m sure many Bills fans were cheering the remarks. I also think many media members downplayed the idea that the NFL doesn’t have to put games not sold out on free TV.

The FCC can set or suggest TV policy. It doesn’t set business policy.

I sympathize with the disabled and the elderly who can’t get to Ralph Wilson Stadium and understand why fans believe games should be televised because taxpayer money pays for stadium upgrades. But I would keep things the way they are because I can’t remember a time when the 40-year-old rule has worked better than this season and don’t want to take any risk that could damage small market teams.

The blackout rules protect the small market teams in cold weather climates more than they protect teams in New York, Chicago, Boston and Dallas, which have much larger populations that almost guarantee sellouts via season ticket-holders at higher prices than Bills fans pay.

The NFL said that only 16 games in 2011 were blacked out, with Buffalo, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay accounting for most of them. Only 15 games were blacked out in 2012.

Let’s say the FCC changes the rules that prohibit cable and satellite systems from carrying blacked-out games, and all games land on TV. And let’s say the NFL is right that the blackout policy helps it fill stadiums. And a rule change results in more empty seats in Buffalo and other small markets.

Any reduced attendance could cause team owners to blame the communities for lack of support and feel more entitled to move teams to larger markets.

It is a scenario that Bills fans should fear. They have enough reasons to worry about losing a team owned by a man in his 90s even with a new stadium lease.

The current policy is working, partly because the NFL appears to have heeded past FCC pressure and tweaked its blackout rules to allow games to be carried if ticket sales are 85 percent of capacity and the home teams agree to give more money for the unsold tickets to a league fund.

The Kansas City game Sunday was the Bills’ fifth straight game televised locally. Even if the next two home games don’t sell out and no one buys the remaining tickets, 14 of the Bills 16 games (including all eight road games and the Toronto game) will air locally.

I would rather risk losing two TV games a year than have season ticket-holders dropping out if they know the November and December games would be carried locally. Many optimistic fans don’t believe a policy change will hurt game day attendance but I wouldn’t want to take that risk and give the NFL any ammunition to eventually move teams.

Additionally, enterprising fans have figured out ways to watch blacked-out games on the Internet.

The NFL is aware of Internet piracy, which could be one of the reasons it would be willing to tweak its blackout policy again. I could foresee the league bowing to FCC pressure or political threats and putting games not sold out in advance on pay-per-view for $10-$50 a game. That’s not what Bills fans have in mind.

It is easy for politicians to climb aboard the anti-blackout movement led by the Buffalo Chapter of the Sports Fans Coalition. But sometimes rule changes can have long-term, unintended consequences.

The taxpayers who feel entitled to see the games on TV should understand that taxpayer money goes to plenty of private enterprises without the government telling them how to conduct their businesses.

The restaurant owners who complain the blackouts hurt their business should realize they would be hurt even more if the team ever left town. The current policy is working and small markets like Buffalo have more to lose than win with any change.


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