The problem with the NFL’s blackout rule

Earlier in the week came news that the Raiders had chosen to lower their blackout threshold. As a Broncos fan, I'm used to watching a franchise that has an infinitesimal chance of needing to manipulate the blackout rule, but living in San Diego for the last few years has afforded me an up-close view of a franchise that struggles to sell tickets despite having been fairly successful for much of the last decade.

While I understand that to the NFL, control of the product is considered an important linchpin in maintaining their revenue stream, I don't think that teams comprehend the basis for why the blackout rule is bad for both the teams and the fans. I’ve lived here for four years, and I have yet to hear anyone say, “Hey, I want to get to the game this weekend because they’re going to black it out otherwise.”

The truth is, in San Diego you’re fighting a beach-oriented culture in which schoolkids are bussed to the shore for surfing classes, street fairs can pop up at any time because there really isn’t a bad weather season, and the local NFL franchise really isn’t a big draw. The media coverage isn’t exactly fertile, and despite my own interest in the game, I rarely meet a serious Chargers fan. Contrary to some of my experiences on the Internet, the ones that i meet tend to be, well, SoCal folks - laidback, not that attached or as used to the teams’ shenanigans as Chicago's North Siders were to the losing ways of the Cubs.

Adhering to the blackout rule only ensures that fewer people will pay attention to the fact that the game is even on. Stadium prices are high, but this isn’t, in general, a poor area. There isn’t a shortage of a population that fits their required demographic, but they’re competing with a very different lifestyle. Taking a tough marketing situation a step into the twilight zone by punishing the folks who actually want to watch Chargers games on the tube isn’t putting anyone into those seats. It does cut into the viewing base a little further, and they lose a little more of the fan base by doing it.

So, who profits? As nearly as I can see, no one. That’s really the foolishness of it. It’s a stubborn, pointless process that started back in the early days of televised games, when football was just being accepted as a household word and boxing was often thought of as more appropriate family fare. They thought that refusing to broadcast the games would result in a bigger turnout by making it the only way to enjoy the game.

In today’s market, nearly anyone can watch nearly any game via the Internet. You make it less enjoyable and more difficult, but you can’t stop the process of information dissemination, including broadcasts of games. But when you make it harder to be a fan, you increasingly cut yourself off from the jerseys and peripherals that the marketing machine in the NFL pumps out.

The idea that people would, and will, fill the seats if they are rationally priced and the team provides a quality product still doesn’t seem to get much play among the owners. The idea that those fans would then buy the things that are associated with their team doesn’t appear that exciting to the league, either.

Unlike Denver - where there’s plenty of ‘football weather’ and the team is as much a part of the inherent fabric of that city as the iconic granite peaks that loom above it - many of the markets that struggle to fill the seats, including San Diego, are fighting the plurality of other (and often more reasonably priced) options.

In some cases, including Oakland, they’re also fighting an extended playoff drought and in that city, many years of sheer embarrassment that include the shootings, beatings, and stabbings that wouldn’t let it be a Raiders game without their inclusion. Making a borderline product harder to obtain will only lead to a decrease in interest in it.

You want to fill the seats? Price them more in line with what people earn and put your efforts into crafting a top product on the field. You don’t have to win in the playoffs - you don’t even have to always make them. But you have to create a competitive product and give people access to it, building a sense of community excitement where there is little to begin with. The Chargers usually put a competitive product out, but they don’t deal rationally with why they have trouble selling out the stadium, and so they make it worse.

They might want to stop pretending that the fans are the problem - they’re not. Pricing is one problem. Blacking out the games only serves to increase the folks on the beaches who don’t even think about the franchise, and they usually don’t bother bringing radios.

If you can’t put a competitive on-field product out that’s also priced within reach of your potential fans? You need to maximize every chance to connect with people, including televising the games. Instead, sooner or later the league tries to move the franchise and will try it again, in a new location. After the initial honeymoon, either that team improves how well they connect with the fans or the cycle starts again.

All the blackouts really accomplish is increase the disconnect with the fans.

What do you think is the primary effect of the NFL's blackout rules?

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