NFL chooses to keep coercive, anti-fan blackouts

by Shawn McCarthy
Guest Analyst for League of Fans

All Hail the National Football League for its merciful generosity during a time of massive economic struggle and high unemployment. Headlines regarding a recent adjustment to the NFL’s blackout policy include: “New NFL blackout rule good for fans”; “Lawmakers cheer NFL change to blackout rule”; “NFL fans cheer blackout changes”; and this from ESPN, “League scores big on blackouts.”

Really? Why all of the overenthusiastic praise directed at the NFL? Let’s not forget that, rather than seizing the opportunity to rid themselves of a major anti-fan, anti-consumer and anti-taxpayer policy, the team owners who collectively make up the NFL have chosen to keep using the blackout blackmail into the future.

Yes, the NFL now enables each team to decide whether they will allow home games to be televised if 85 percent of the tickets have been sold, as opposed to all of them. To the untrained eye, this may be seen as a slight improvement. But consider that earlier this year a group of petitioners, including League of Fans, successfully pushed the Federal Communications Commission to solicit public comment to review the legality of the NFL’s blackout rule. Will the NFL’s strategic move be enough to keep the FCC from taking action to end the blackout rule altogether?

It should not.

A group of independent economists say it doesn’t even make sense economically for the NFL to impose its television blackouts on fans. This from the economists’ joint filing to the FCC:

“Academic research supports the conclusion that local television blackouts have little or no effect on ticket sales or attendance for the game that is being televised. Local blackouts of home games harm consumers without producing a significant financial benefit to teams.”

So far, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have taken advantage of lowering the blackout threshold to 85% capacity for this season. The Bucs home games, in a publicly-funded stadium, were seen on television only a few times by their own fan base over the last two seasons. That’s a lot of missed opportunities to develop the next generation of Bucs fans with kids finding something else to do during football season. At the same time, a wedge is driven between the team and longtime fans who cannot afford to attend regularly at the stadium that their tax dollars built. But at least the Bucs will try to stop the blackouts this season to the extent that the NFL allows.

In contrast, the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills have reportedly chosen to maintain the status quo and require sellouts before allowing their own fans to watch home games on television. The final deadline for each team to inform the league of its intentions regarding the blackout rule is August 9.

Now that it’s clear very little has changed other than direct team involvement, fans can voice their anger at individual teams rather than only blaming the NFL for imposing blackouts. Fans will wonder how team owners can squeeze the public out of hundreds of millions of dollars for stadiums by threatening to move the team, then hold fans hostage by the blackout rule out of fear that they will not be able to see the games on television. Here’s what Dan Wetzel wrote back in May about this absurdity regarding the Minnesota Vikings new stadium deal:

“Minnesota is going to get a new stadium. The Vikings are going to stay put. And the taxpayers are going to pay to build a state-of-the-art cash machine of a stadium for a billion-dollar organization that doesn’t have to even guarantee the games will be on television.”

During a time of massive economic struggle and high unemployment, the NFL could have done something significant beginning this season. The league should have ended its counterproductive and coercive blackouts voluntarily, especially after the FCC announced a review.

But that’s a lot to expect from a bully. Let’s hope the FCC and elected leaders hear the collective voice of the fans and take away the bully’s weapon. It’s time for the FCC to take action and put an end to the NFL’s abusive blackout rule.

Shawn McCarthy is a librarian & archivist in Washington DC. He is editor of, and was formerly project director of League of Fans.


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