Why the NFL's TV Blackout Rule Is Now Self-Defeating

NFL Fumbles on Blackouts: Sellout Rule Hurts Football in the HD Age
NFL Fumbles on Blackouts: Sellout Rule Hurts Football in the HD Age

This Sunday, another NFL game is getting blacked out on local TV because of sagging ticket sales -- which just proves that the NFL doesn't understand what it has done to its own product.

NFL games have become better to watch at home than in the stands, a reversal of the usual sports arrangement. The games are now more like a taping of Two and a Half Men, with the fans in the stands as little more than the studio audience.

For two decades, the NFL has worked hard to make its games the highest-fidelity televised sporting events in the world. It pioneered replays, close-up shots, and computerized enhancements (like those virtual on-field first-down lines). It jumped on the high-definition bandwagon early, and is now pushing into 3-D.

Watching Is Way Cheaper Than Attending

Meanwhile, Americans have been loading up on giant, flat-screen TVs with surround sound. Now, when you stay home to watch a game, you can lounge on your comfortable couch and experience the game in a better way than if you were in a hard plastic seat hundreds of feet from the field.

And, of course, watching from home costs nothing. But the average NFL ticket price is $76.47, which doesn't include the cost of parking or paying $15 for a beer.

Normally, the experience of seeing a sporting event in person balances the convenience of watching it from home, so fans retain a desire to get to the games, and they'll make that trade-off often enough to fill the stands. That's been the case for the NFL -- until now. With ticket prices going up while the home experience has improved dramatically, fans are deciding to stay on the couch.

TV Ratings Are Soaring

The result: Attendance is expected to fall as much as 2% this season, after dropping each of the past two seasons -- from 17.3 million in 2007 to 16.7 million last season. At the same time, the NFL's TV ratings are soaring -- up 15% last season over 2008.

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But the NFL doesn't get it. It still thinks ticket sales are paramount, which is why it's holding on to what's quickly becoming a self-defeating blackout policy. If a game isn't sold out 72 hours before kickoff, the game won't be broadcast locally. This weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Pittsburgh Steelers will be blacked out in Tampa. The Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills and a few other teams are constantly on the edge of getting blacked out when they play at home.

But blackouts hurt the league's TV advertising income and harm its fan base by preventing fans from following their team live on TV. The NFL's revenues from TV and from ticket sales are about equal: $4 billion each. So the league has some choices to make.

Is football the world's best TV sport, or is it a live sport that's so good that every game should sell out? Turns out, it can't be both.