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