Bills’ fans won’t get to watch the home squad play Miami on TV this afternoon. The local blackout defies common sense, denies us a product we pay for, and underlines the power of the NFL’s monopoly.
So it is nice, finally, to see lawmakers hit the league where it hurts.
If you want to make the billionaires club of NFL owners antsy, threaten to pluck their “golden goose.” The league’s magic fowl is the congressionally protected monopoly that lets it limit the number of franchises, allows owners to extort tax dollars for new or improved stadiums, and breeds multibillion dollar broadcast deals.
The TV blackout rule – which bans local telecast of games not sold out 72 hours before kickoff – is just a chip of that golden monopoly egg. But it is a crack in the shell, and I am happy to see Rep. Brian Higgins go after it.
The Buffalo Democrat on Friday launched an anti-blackout bill that targets a piece of the NFL’s monopoly. The bill, with bipartisan backing, comes on the heels of last week’s blackout attack by the Federal Communications Commission. Neither Congress nor the FCC can dictate to the NFL, which gives you some idea of who’s got the juice in Washington. But the combined pressure – Higgins counts John McCain among the bill’s Senate backers – should be enough, I suspect, to sack an outdated rule that denies us the entertainment we pay for.
Higgins told me the so-called FANS Act would “repeal the antitrust legislation as it relates to TV blackouts ... The league is caught between a rock and a hard place.”
The NFL’s obvious move is to punt the blackout rule. But billionaire team owners don’t like being told what to do – no matter how much sense it makes.
The idea behind the circa-1975 rule was to pump up ticket sales, on the theory that some fans – if all home games were locally televised – would stay home instead of going to the stadium. The policy made sense, back when the bulk of a team’s take came from ticket sales. In the current NFL of mega-billion-dollar broadcast deals, with teams sharing equally in the windfall, the local TV blackout is as archaic as the leather helmet.
The FCC said as much Wednesday, calling the blackout rule “obsolete.” It then piled on, noting that there is “no direct link between blackouts and increased attendance at NFL games.”
In other words: Just show the game.
In a real sense, we’re paying to see it. Under current lease terms, county taxpayers shell out an average of $10 million a year in stadium upgrades and maintenance for Ralph Wilson’s private business. We also pony up our share of the state’s annual $13 million handout. We should in return at least get to watch the product we prop up.
Beyond that, blacking out home games hurts local advertisers. If the Bills’ game isn’t shown, it cuts the size of the TV audience that sees local ads on the stadium walls, or watches TV commercials during the game. Indeed, the reason team owners often buy remaining tickets the week of the game is not out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s to ensure that local advertisers – from car dealers to law firms – get the biggest bang for their bucks.
If the NFL won’t listen to reason, it should respond to muscle. The FCC/congressional chop block on the league’s monopoly is what fans needed. Finally, Washington is speaking a language the NFL understands.