Threatening Packers fans with blackout "not fair"

Blackout rule
Blackout rule

The National Football League is holding on tight to the "blackout" rule that got its start more than 60 years. The rule was intended to get fans to buy tickets and fill the league's stadiums.

In the 50s and 60s home games were blacked out on local television to insure ticket sales.

The policy was revised thanks to Congress in 1973 that blackouts would only take place if the stadium didn't sell out 72 hours prior to kickoff.

But the NFL insists the blackout policy continues to be needed to fill stadiums like Lambeau Field.

"The idea is to protect, as they say, the season ticket holders or more importantly protect the local revenues from the games," said Kevin Quinn, who teaches sports economics at Saint Norbert College, home to the Packers during training camp.

Quinn says the NFL has a good thing going with antitrust exemptions that allows the league to blackout games if fans don't buy their tickets.

We asked Quinn, "When you set the ticket price high and you say if you don't buy the tickets or we're going to blackout the game it's really blackmailing the fans is it not?"

"It is," said Quinn. "This is exactly why antitrust exemptions were required in order for the league as an entity to negotiate the contract."

And by the way, the NFL's contracts with broadcasters now bring in more than $7 billion a year. They are not only with TV networks, but the NFL also has deals with Verizon to get games on phones, and satellite provider DirecTV, not to mention its own subscription channels like NFL Red Zone.

"The broadcasts are the most important thing to the NFL. It's the mother's milk of the NFL," stated Quinn.

The NFL doesn't release its financial figures, but some analysts predict as much as 70 percent of the organization's revenue now comes from broadcasting the games. Ticket sale revenue pales in comparison.

"Treating fans this way is something that should have been corrected a long time ago," said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, whose Cincinnati Bengals faced the same Wild Card playoff threat of a blackout.

Several members of Congress, like Brown, are pushing to make that correction--saying the NFL's deal is not fair to the fans and is no longer needed by the teams to survive.

You may be wondering what do Packers officials think about getting rid of the blackout rule? I'd love to tell you but after numerous attempts to talk to them on camera, they tell me it's a league issue and "respectfully declined" to comment for this story.

Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri of Fond du Lac had something to say about it though.

"I think it is outdated, and I think whether we need to get rid of it entirely or whether--we certainly need to modify it," said Petri.

The Packers seemed a bit more open to talking with Petri, when his office contacted the Packers to inquire about the blackout rule.

"We checked with them and they're wanting to go along with the league because they're a member of the league, but I don't think they're live or die on this sort of thing. They want happy customers," explained Petri.

Since the Packers are following the league's lead, I turned to the NFL sending emails and making calls to address whether blacking out games is still needed.

After numerous attempts I received this emailed statement, saying in part..."The blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds."

"Blackmailing fans that, you know, you have to go to the game or it won't be on television. Well if I go to the game I don't care if it's on television right so I'm not sure that's a winning strategy. Certainly it's a public relations disaster I think," said Quinn.

That's the message we got from some fans Wild Card Weekend.

"It really doesn't make any sense because if you live in the area you want local television something as important as this needs to be televised no matter what," said Packers fan Jonathan Haag.

Other fans point out many stadiums are built using taxpayer dollars. Part of the Brown County sales tax continues to pay for Lambeau Field's $295 million renovations completed in 2003.

"So it's a little silly that they're going to stop you from watching a game in a stadium, that pretty much you paid for," said Packers fan Daniel Peski.

"For some reason the NFL thought this was in their interest to take huge public subsidies, taxpayers putting a lot of money into stadiums...and then if not enough fans paid for these overpriced tickets then stick it to the fans and stick it to taxpayers by blacking out the home games," said Congressman Brown.

In football terms, the NFL blackout rule may be facing fourth down and long as Congressional pressure mounting. This as the Federal Communications Commission favors a proposal that would end blackout rules for televised sporting events, and is currently reviewing public comments on the issue.

Depending on those comments, Petri tells me he and his colleagues may need to step in to make the playing field fair for fans.

"If it doesn't make sense to most people then maybe Congress can get involved," said Petri.