Some teams can make attendance-boosting techniques feel a lot like extortion.
PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- If the NFL's television blackouts are supposed to help the live-game experience compete with television, they're not working. When they're reduced to a means of extorting cash and concession from fans, however, they're a tremendous success.
The NFL kept 15 games off television in their home markets this year. That's down from 16 last year and 26 in 2010, but is still impressive after the NFL tweaked its blackout policy this summer to allow teams to declare a sellout and keep games on the air once ticket sales hit 85% of their home stadium's capacity. Under the old rule, which dates back to an act of Congress in 1961, home games couldn't be shown on TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium if non-premium tickets weren't completely sold out 72 hours before kickoff.
That switch wasn't mandatory, however, and it was up to the teams' owners to decide if they wanted to adopt that 85% threshold and pay a greater percentage of ticket revenue to opposing teams as a result. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jumped at the chance in July and lowered ticket prices after blacking out 13 of their past 15 home games. The Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings also joined in, but that didn't prevent two of those four teams from blacking out games this season.
The official NFL line is that the blackouts are in place to goose attendance. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did his best to bolster that claim in November, blaming high-definition broadcasts of games for the league's attendance woes in certain markets.
"One of our biggest challenges in the league is the experience at home," Goodell said. "HD is only going to get better."
The context of that comment, though, was a private meeting with 550 Atlanta Falcons fans discussing whether the team needed to replace its current home. The Georgia Dome, mind you, was built only 21 years ago with $214 million taxpayer money and just got $300 million in renovations in 2007 and 2008.
Goodell went on to talk about improving fan safety, scoreboards and technology at NFL events as well as improving the in-game experience on mobile devices. Falcons owner Arthur Blank then lowered the boom:
"There are limitations in what we can do at the Georgia Dome," he said. "Technology is terribly important. That will be completely solved in a new stadium."
That's right, not only is he asking for a new stadium to replace one he admits is perfectly functional, but Village Voice writer and FieldofSchemes.com editor Neil DeMause says he's looking for another $300 million to $400 million in public funding for it. While nearly two-thirds of fans surveyed think it's a bad idea, none of their elected officials have come forward to challenge Blank on it.
Blank and the Falcons didn't have to black out a single game or threaten to switch cities to make that happen. The same can't be said for other cities. In no specific order, here's how things played out for blacked-out cities this year:
Number of blackouts: Two
Buffalo didn't have the most television blackouts among NFL teams this year, but its blackouts seemed to hurt most.
The team just concluded the latest in a string of non-winning seasons dating back to 1999 and finished at the bottom of the AFC East. One of its "home" games has been played in Toronto for each of the past four years and this year's game couldn't draw more than 40,000 people even with Psy singing Gangnam Style at halftime.
The Bills declined the NFL's offer to lift blackouts at 85% capacity, largely because doing so would require it to pay $90,000 per home game into the league's anti-blackout revenue pool. They needed a local restaurant owner to buy up remaining tickets to prevent a third blackout this year. Yet, despite all of this, folks in Erie County and New York State are going to shell out $226 million in tax dollars combined to renovate the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills will kick in a scant $44 million.
This is a team that regularly asks Buffalo to fill its 73,000-seat-stadium with nearly a third of its population just to keep games on television while the Chicago Bears require just 62,000 of that city's 2.7 million residents to do the same. It's a team that wouldn't commit to a future in the city beyond 94-year-old owner Ralph Wilson's lifespan. It's a team that celebrated its new deal by blacking out the Bills' last home game of the season.
It's a team that's giving Buffalo only eight more years for its investment. Eight.
That's $28.3 million a year for a team that's paying only $800,000 a year in rent on its stadium. Oh, and the new deal still allows the team to play one home game a year in Toronto, which means the issue of a possible move there still isn't settled. Buffalo bought itself some time, but it's still on the wrong end of this one-way love affair and remains an emotional and financial hostage of a team that always seems to have one foot out the door.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Number of blackouts: Six
That's six out of eight home games blacked out this season and 25 out of the past 29 overall, for everyone counting at home.
The only games the team sold out this year was a home loss to the New Orleans Saints, their division rivals, and a random matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles -- one of the few teams in the league worse than the Buccaneers this year. The fan base just suffered through its second straight losing season after the Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010, but the problems run much deeper than the on-field product.
Management knew this, and deflected blame back to the league by accepting the new blackout threshold and tweaking ticket prices. Granted, attendance for a majority of the team's blacked-out home games in the two seasons before this fell below that 85% mark, but this year's turnout makes that seem fairly obvious.
It's tough to say what Tampa's next move should be. Management hasn't bought up tickets for a third of the price and given them to charity -- a loophole exploited by several other NFL squads -- but that's a costly alternative. The answer may lie in its $69.72 average ticket price, which Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index says is nearly $10 below the league average, but is still the costliest NFL ticket in Florida. By comparison, Seattle Seahawks fans in a far more economically stable city paid $2 less to see their team play each Sunday this year. The Seahawks are in the playoffs, but the Buccaneers' season is over -- not that many folks in Tampa notice.
San Diego Chargers
Number of blackouts: Four
Ownership wants a new stadium, taxpayers don't want to pay for it.
That's what it boils down to in San Diego, where a Chargers team that sold out 48 straight games through 2010 now blacks out home games annually. The Spanos family of owners has threatened to move the team to Escondido, Chula Vista or, more seriously, Los Angeles and has made it clear they'll go wherever they can get a new stadium and a shot at hosting the Super Bowl.
San Diego voters, meanwhile, have responded by electing former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner as the city's mayor after he vowed not to publicly subsidize a new Chargers stadium. His thoughts on the matter during the campaign were fairly clear. "Enough of the extortion from our sports teams, whether they be the Padres or the Chargers," he said at the time.
The team hasn't done a whole lot to combat Filner's "extortion" claims either. The Chargers just finished their first losing seson since 2003 and, just before their last blacked-out game, tried to sell tickets on Groupon (:GRPN) for a whopping $8 less than their $72 face value. It's getting ugly in a hurry for the Chargers, who just seem to be counting the days until they can pack up the trucks and take I-5 North to their new major-market home.
Number of blackouts: One
The other team in the Los Angeles sweepstakes is no stranger to either blackouts or stadium squabbles.
The Raiders tried Los Angeles once before, but headed back to Oakland in the mid-1990s. Since then, Raiders fans have dealt with dozens of home-game blackouts that made the Oakland Coliseum a black hole for its stadium of painted crazies and television screens across the area.
The Raiders' lease at O.co Coliseum ends next year, which has given management an excuse to go house hunting. The team considered joining the 49ers at their new stadium in Santa Clara and weighed building a stadium in Dublin, Calif. But new owner Mark Davis is invested in Oakland and even accepted the 85% attendance threshold for lockouts.
The franchise's main problem, as always, is the product it puts on the field. The Raiders' only blackout this season was its first in 13 home games, but even those last two hopeful seasons yielded only two straight 8-8 records. The Raiders limped back to its losing ways this season and hasn't had a winning season since 2002, when they lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.
For now, the Raiders aren't going anywhere. Unfortunately for fans, that statement's applies just as well to the team's play as it does to its stay in Oakland.
Number of blackouts: Two
It's been a lot worse for the Bengals, who blacked out 10 games in their previous two seasons. Sure, there were two blackouts this year, but quarterback Andy Dalton helped lead his team to its second-consecutive playoff berth.
That somewhat salves the would for fans who've been consistently burned by the Bengals within the past two decades or so. The team threatened to move in 1995 if they didn't get a new stadium, which ended up costing Hamilton County, Ohio, $540 million. That debt climbed as the recession deepened and expanded to a $30 million budget deficit this year alone. Add annual stadium costs to taxpayers that rose from $29.9 million in 2008 to $34.6 million in 2010 and sales tax revenue that's declined steadily since 2000 and you get crushing debt that eliminates funding for programs such as a juvenile court and rolls back the property tax cut promised as part of the stadium deal.
Ownership continues to discuss renovations and more potential tax-sucking projects, but winning creates a nice distraction from all of that. Just ask Atlanta Falcons fans who watched their team walk through the regular season to a first-round buy, only to have ownership try to sneak a few hundred million out of their pockets while they weren't looking.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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