Turning the Game On: The NFL’s Blackout Rule and the Mediation of Football
by Alex Kupfer — New York University
November 10, 2010 – 00:00
In the 2009 season a total of twenty-two NFL games were blacked out in their home markets due to the league’s long standing policy of blacking out games on local stations (defined as any station whose broadcast signal penetrates a 75 mile radius of the stadium) that are not sold-out at least 72 hours before kickoff. The trend is continuing this year as so far through the first eight weeks of the 2010 NFL season there have already been eleven games that have been withheld from local coverage. A number of different factors including the poor economy, high ticket prices, and increasing fan apathy for perpetually lousy teams have all been blamed. Local fans of the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Diego Chargers all saw multiple home games blacked out since 2009. None of the Oakland Raiders’ last eleven home games have sold-out or been broadcast locally.
The current blackout policy has been in place since 1973 as a way of ensuring that stadium attendance would not suffer as a result of broadcasting games on television. (Between 1951 and 1972 clubs were not allowed to sell broadcast rights to their home games and had to black them out) Yet the increasing proliferation of ways in which the NFL packages its product and delivers it through an ever-expanding number of broadcast and satellite channels and websites (more recent additions to this lineup included NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV, NBC’s Sunday Night game also being streamed live on NFL.com and NBCSports.com, NFL Replay and NFL Replay Highlights on the NFL Network, the addition of video to fantasy games on the league’s website, and so on), has made it more enticing for many fans to simply stay home and watch football rather than go out to the stadium.
Fully cognizant of this trend, many teams, particularly ones with state of the art new stadiums such as Cowboys Stadium and New Meadowlands Stadium, are increasingly endeavoring to replicate this hyper-mediated experience for fans at the games through massive high-definition score boards which show the action on the field as well as highlights from around the league, and the NFL Fan Vision handheld device which employs a four-inch screen so fans can watch the network feed of their game, out of town games or the RedZone channel while at the stadium.
In a sense then, due to the proliferation of NFL programs and clips, one of the basic functions of televised football is changing, as television no longer advertises the league and teams themselves as a means of enticing fans to buy tickets and come to the stadium. Rather, those attending the games are positioned as enhancing the televised product being watched at home as many associated with the league believe that a sold-out stadium greatly enhances the experience of watching it on television. The recognition that it is easier, cheaper, and often more informative to watch football at home rather than at the stadium has driven much of the increasingly loud complaints about the NFL’s policy of blacking out games which do not sell out. Particularly over the past two seasons, sportswriters and bloggers have repeatedly called for an end to the NFL’s blackout rule (such as here, here, and here). In the clip, a local San Diego newscast takes the unusual step of not only instructing Chargers fans about how they can watch the blacked out game (even pointing to multiple websites which illegally stream it), but even brings in a lawyer to inform viewers that there are no legal implications for them. While the idea that there are ways to watch blacked out games that fall outside the purview of the NFL should come as no surprise, it does the raise the question of how the league’s longstanding blackout policy and larger relationship with television will change as sports continue to be increasingly watched and followed over the internet and other digital technologies.