By Steve Eggleston
A week after completing a regular season that saw the fewest local blackouts of games, two, due to not “selling out” stadiums, the National Football League nearly saw three of its four playoff games blacked out. It took businesses buying thousands of tickets in Cincinnati, Green Bay, and Indianapolis after the 72-hour deadlines to sell out the games were extended, twice in Indianapolis, to end the threat of blackouts of the games on stations with broadcast signals that reach inside of a 75-mile radius circle around the stadiums.
Green Bay has sold out Lambeau Field for every game, both regular season and playoff, since failing to sell out the stadium for a playoff game following the strike-plagued 1982 season, with the regular-season sellouts extending back into the early 1960s. Indianapolis has sold out every game in its series of stadiums for more than a decade. Cincinnati, which had two of its home games blacked out in 2012, sold out Paul Brown Stadium for every 2013 game.
A bit of history on the NFL blackout rule is in order. Prior to 1973, every televised NFL game was blacked out in the city where the game was played. This irked the politicians in Washington when the 1972 Washington Redskins had a great season. They did what angry politicians are prone to do and passed a law requiring the NFL, as well as other sports leagues with national TV contracts, to broadcast a local team’s game if it sold out that game at least 72 hours prior to its start.
The law expired at the end of 1975, but the NFL, not wishing to have its antitrust exemption threatened like it was following the 1972 season, kept the basic parts of that They extended the blackout requirement to any network affiliate with a signal that reaches within a 75-mile radius circle of a stadium. The NFL also allowed teams to purchase regular-season tickets for 34 cents on the dollar, to not count unsold club or luxury box seating against the sell-out requirements, and to ask for extensions of the 72-hour deadline to move any remaining tickets. At the same time, the FCC enacted sports blackout rules that, among other things, applied the NFL’s blackout rule to cable and satellite providers inside the 75-mile circle.
The NFL modified the “sell-out” requirement in 2012, allowing teams to have as few as 85% of the regular seats sold during the regular season to avoid a blackout in exchange for a larger cut of the revenue for seats sold beyond the relaxed “sell-out” threshhold.
Because the NFL both sets the ticket prices for playoff games and retains all of the ticket revenue, neither the reduced-price team buyout provision nor the relaxed “sell-out” threshhold apply for playoff games.
That brings us to this week. I’ll speak of the Packers’ experience because I call Wisconsin home and the Packers my NFL team. There are two sets of season ticket holders because of the legacy of the Packers playing some of their games in Milwaukee. While Lambeau Field holds a bit over 80,000 after the latest expansion, only 68,000 of those seats are “general admission” seats. Even though there are somewhere north of 60,000 people on the waiting list, the face value of the tickets is in the mid-range of NFL ticket prices, between $74 and $97.
Playoff tickets, ranging from $102 to over $300 as dictated by the NFL, went on sale to season ticket holders just after the Packers lost big in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day to drop to third in the NFC North and out of the wild-card hunt, with requirements to buy all three possible home games at the highest available ticket price level and, in a change from prior years, apply any unused balance toward next year’s season ticket invoice instead of having an option to receive a cash refund.
Needless to say, that didn’t receive a good response, with fewer than 28,000 general-admission tickets sold. On Monday, season-ticket holders had an exclusive opportunity to buy just the wild-card game against San Francisco through either Ticketmaster or the mostly-unused Lambeau Field box office. At 3 pm Monday, when tickets became available to the general public, there were still 40,000 tickets.
By that time, the forecast for Ice Bowl-quality cold on a late Sunday afternoon was widely known. Apparently, the NFL and Fox failed to check the forecast before scheduling the game for a 3:40 pm Central kickoff. By 3:40 pm Thursday, there were still over 3,000 tickets available, so the Packers applied for and received a one-day extension. At 9:30 am Friday, the Packers announced they had fewer than 1,000 tickets remaining, and at 11:30 am, they announced that several local businesses and the three Fox affilates that would have been forced to black out the game (Green Bay, Milwaukee and Wausau) had purchased the remaining tickets.
Re-enter the politicians. The FCC already has a proposed rule that would allow cable and satellite providers to ignore blackout rules applied to broadcast stations. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) already have a bill that would strip the antitrust exemption of any league that does any blackout. McCain used this as an opportunity to resurrect his bill.
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