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Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

NFL should abolish blackout rule

November 16, 2008

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The NFL should worry about what's happening in Detroit. The combination of unwatchable football and an equally horrid financial climate makes Detroit the confluence of negative forces that severely challenges the NFL's immunity to economic crisis.

The Lions can't win. They can't sell out their home games. They can't get on local television. They can't excite those who bother showing up at Ford Field.

The threat of a blackout ordinarily spurs home ticket sales. But with escalating ticket prices and a declining economy, it often becomes a choice between buying two Lions tickets or paying the gas bill.

The NFL should institute a one-year moratorium on local television blackouts. Give the fans a break from the realities of the real world that are crashing down on them.

It also would benefit the NFL, liberating the league from an antiquated business model created in the 1950s that doesn't recognize the vast diversity and availability of entertainment options today.

Detroit deserves a special exemption. The NFL waived its blackout policy for the New Orleans Saints three years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Sure, it was a special circumstance. The Louisiana Superdome sustained significant damage from the storm, forcing the Saints to play some home games in Baton Rouge (well within the 75-mile blackout radius) and San Antonio, Texas. But the NFL thought using football as a rallying center could prove therapeutic for a community economically and physically devastated.

And the Saints stunk that year.

This year Detroit sits squarely in the crosshairs of an economic tsunami.

General Motors, long the embodiment of Western capitalism, flirts with bankruptcy. Chrysler sits at the brink of extinction. The value of a single share of Ford common stock cannot even buy a Big Mac and fries.

A league spokesman said the NFL is cognizant of the economic woes befalling the country and its residual impact on the league, reiterating NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's comment last month in San Antonio that the league isn't recession-proof. But the NFL insists that its local television blackout policy helps all concerned by promoting stronger ticket sales.

The NFL wants home games to be televised locally, thereby creating larger TV ratings and boosting local advertising sales. That makes the NFL more attractive when rights fees are negotiated and drive up those prices.

But Fox 2 loses more than $200,000 in ad sales when it can't produce a Lions' postgame show following home games.

Things could get worse. The Lions risk routinely having a half-empty Ford Field next season. The Big Three - or what's left of them by next summer - might have no alternative but to drastically scale back its advertising on football Sundays. Only breweries spend more advertising dollars on NFL football than the automobile industry.

The NFL has thrived by making even horrendous football still feel like a major event every Sunday.

Its blackout policy is antiquated, and the league must make its product more accessible in a bad economy because it cannot afford let fans slip away.

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