23 March 2015

The NFL has suspended the blackout rule for 2015

For both common observers and insiders, the blackout policies of the National Football League make somewhere between little and no sense. Since 1973, unless games were sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff, it was blacked out locally. The policy was changed a little in 2012 in which the league allowed teams to only need to sell 85 percent of tickets (four teams did stick to the policy) but ultimately, it reeked of a policy that was stuck in the past.

That changes today as the league announced a suspension of the blackout rules for this upcoming season with only one team voting against the change.

Now it is important to note that this is not a permanent change; the league plans to assess the impact of the removal of the blackout rules next offseason.

And also, this really does not change all that much from last season as there were zero blackouts last season. Television blackouts have been on the decline in recent years as there were only two blacked-out games in 2013 as compared to ten blacked-out games in 2010. In fact, the lack of blackouts last season appears to be one of the key reasons as to why the owners chose to make this decision:
As noted in Clark's tweet, the Federal Communications Commission, in an unanimous decision, voted to end the Sports Blackout Rule in September, which was their teeth behind the NFL's blackout rules. Now it did not kill the NFL's blackout policy because the league was still able to work with the league's television partners to institute a blackout even as it ultimately did not have to do so.

But it is a significant step forward, even if just symbolic, for the league. The NFL has famously been adverse to its television policies such as this one. Again, this policy has been put in place since 1973 and before that, games were blacked out no matter what in the home markets.

Could there also be an ulterior motive to this decision? As Forbes' Vincent Frank points out, this decision comes as the relocation discussion has started to heat up, namely regarding a team or two moving to Los Angeles, perhaps as soon as 2016. Considering that any NFL team that will move to the Southland is going to have to utilize a temporary venue for a couple of seasons and save for the exception of Dodger Stadium (which seems like a stretch), the options are either the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum. Both of those seat north of 92,000 people and given the struggles of both the Rams and the Raiders selling out the Coliseum (ultimately pushing the Rams to Anaheim and a renovated Anaheim Stadium), blackouts could have been a real possibility. Now, that issue is out of the way. Just some food for thought.

The only way I do not see this not becoming permanent next offseason is if teams see significant declines in ticket sales. I do not see that happening as I highly doubt that fans were buying tickets solely to put the game on television when they would not be home to watch it, although I cannot rule it out either. But even then, it is a big shift for the NFL.

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