What’s Keeping NFL Fans in the Dark?

Football blackouts may be gone soon, but that might not be enough to keep some NFL fans from missing the playoffs.

NFL fans could miss the action if their teams fail to sell out playoff games.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Jan. 3, 2014, 8:49 a.m.

No one can fault Green Bay fans if they forgo a -50 de­gree wind chill Sunday to watch the Pack­ers from the com­forts of their own home. But Cheese­heads’ hes­it­ance to brave the chilly con­fines of Lam­beau Field nearly cost fans in north­east­ern Wis­con­sin the chance to watch the game at all. Luck­ily for Green Bay fans, late tick­et sales made the game a sel­lout and aver­ted the NFL’s black­out threat.

But Pack­ers fans aren’t alone. Cin­cin­nati is also fa­cing the pos­sib­il­ity of a loc­al TV black­out, as the Bengals have un­til Fri­day af­ter­noon to sell out their game. In­di­ana­pol­is nar­rowly avoided a sim­il­ar fate when Meijer bought 1,200 tick­ets for loc­al mil­it­ary fam­il­ies. Black­outs are hardly new, but it’s un­usu­al for 75 per­cent of the week­end’s play­off host cit­ies to ap­proach the sel­lout dead­line with tick­ets still un­sold.

So what’s keep­ing fans from filling up the seats? The most ob­vi­ous an­swer is the in­creas­ing qual­ity of the TV ex­per­i­ence. The ad­vant­ages (and cost sav­ings) of watch­ing an HD broad­cast versus trav­el­ing to the sta­di­um have been well-doc­u­mented, but now there’s more evid­ence fans are shift­ing their view­ing habits. The NFL on FOX earned the most view­ers in its his­tory this sea­son; CBS grabbed its second-highest rat­ing ever.

But high TV view­er­ship might not be a threat to loc­al fans for much longer. Last month, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion an­nounced it was start­ing the pro­cess to al­ter black­out rules. The pro­posed change would al­low cable and satel­lite pro­viders to carry games in blacked-out mar­kets, even if the NFL pre­vents over-the-air loc­al sta­tions from show­ing the broad­casts. Es­sen­tially, un­less you’re get­ting Green Bay’s WLUK Fox 11 from your an­tenna, you’ll be able to watch the game.

The FCC’s pro­posed work-around was praised by Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., who had put for­ward their own le­gis­la­tion to cut black­outs. With his con­stitu­ents in danger of miss­ing their Bengals, Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D-Ohio, chimed in Thursday to chas­tise the NFL. “This is un­ac­cept­able at a time when the price of at­tend­ing games con­tin­ues to rise, and the eco­nomy is not yet where it needs to be,” Brown said, call­ing the FCC’s rule change “ex­cel­lent news.”

But for now, black­outs are still a fact of life, and fans who choose to watch the game from home may be cost­ing them­selves the op­por­tun­ity to do just that.

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