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Blackouts are bad business for the NFL

The timing could not be better.

We soon will likely be asked to spend upwards of $100 million to upgrade the operations facility of business owner Ralph Wilson. Local and state taxpayers -- whether they care about the Buffalo Bills or not -- will have to ante up for stadium improvements to keep the team in town.

In return, I think, we should get the chance every football Sunday to see what we're paying for. That only happens if the NFL ends the outdated, counter-productive and taxpayer-offensive TV blackout rule.

Since we subsidize the business, I think we should by rights have access to the product.

The Federal Communications Commission is revisiting the 1973 rule preventing NFL home games not sold out 72 hours in advance from being locally televised. Thousands of irate fans spoke up during a recent comment period. The ball is now in the FCC's hands. Although the FCC cannot force the NFL to comply, an anti-blackout edict might embarrass the league into changing its ways.

Rep. Brian Higgins is playing offense.

"Bills fans made an economic investment in the team by supporting stadium improvements in the 1990s, and will be asked to again," Higgins told me. "This is a great opportunity for the NFL to give back to the fans."

Call it giveback or payback -- either way, it's overdue.

Let's be real. The NFL is a massive monopoly that even Washington can barely budge. It morphed into a multibillion dollar business through enlightened marketing of a compelling, tightly controlled product.

I cannot figure out why the league clings to an artifact from a bygone era that, financially and otherwise, does it more harm than good. The NFL gets more than half of its revenue from advertising. It makes no sense to deprive your target audience of the product.

The TV blackout is based on the premise that televising home games hurts ticket sales. There is one problem with the notion: It is not true.

Nine of the nation's top sports economists this month blind-sided the blackout argument. "There is no evidence," they wrote in a report to the FCC, "that the current blackout practices of the NFL have a significant affect on attendance, revenues [and] profits."

Which only confirmed what any sports fan knows: It's more fun to go to a game than to watch it at home. The economist wonks piled on, calling the TV blackout an "unnecessary regulation that harms consumers and has been voluntarily abandoned by all other professional sports leagues."

Look no further than the Sabres, who televise all 41 home games -- and still sell out almost every night.

The more exposure the public has to your product, the more it enhances the brand, heightens demand and -- consequently -- lures advertisers.

The NFL does not need me to state the obvious: The extra ad dollars pocketed by locally televising all home games outweighs the cost of any empty seats.

Three of seven Bills home games (not counting the "home" Toronto game) last season were not on local TV. That did not help anybody. Not the local businesses that buy TV ads or signs in the stadium, which are not seen in thousands of Western New York homes. Not taxpayers who shell out millions for stadium upgrades. Not the TV networks that last season paid nearly $2 billion for broadcast rights.

"Why wouldn't the league want [maximum] TV exposure for teams?" wondered Higgins. "It means more visibility for advertisers, which is where the league derives revenue."

All of which raises the blackout question: What is the NFL waiting for?