Buffalo seems an unlikely locale for a battle between the NFL and its fans.
After all, the western New York city is one of the league’s smallest markets, and its Bills have not been relevant in the playoffs for decades. What’s more, rumors persist that investors are looking to scoop up the franchise and move it to Toronto.
That is precisely why Buffalo is ground zero in an intriguing struggle matching the NFL’s political firepower against fans’ plea for fundamental fairness.
You see, television blackouts of Bills’ home games are a reality at times for Buffalo fans. And the NFL — an organization blessed with a generous antitrust exemption from Congress — is lobbying heavily to extend its 40-year-old authority to prevent fans from seeing games that are not sold out.
The NFL’s Blackout Policy requires teams to sell out at least 85 percent of game tickets at least 72 hours before kickoff to avoid a blackout in their local TV market. The Federal Communications Commission has begun a process that would eliminate the rule over time.
Last year, just two of the NFL’s 256 regular-season games were blacked out, but many others were “saved” by last-minute ticket pushes.
Critics and fans say the rule is special protection for a business that doesn’t need more government help. The blackout rule allows NFL teams to be immune from the normal pressures of a free market and disproportionally hurts teams in smaller cities, they say.
The league, though, which wields tremendous political clout, has fought back, even if its arguments are more circuitous than a hail-Mary diagram.
Over the summer, the NFL has rushed the FCC with meetings and letters, even bringing out former Steelers star Lynn Swann to aid the public relations push to keep the special interest protection in place.
Swann said in an interview with the NFL Network recently that the rule “helps grow the game and helps maintain it.”
“We need to make sure to protect the game so the widest number of people possible can view it and keep it on free TV for those people who don’t buy cable packages,” Swann said.
He has been taking his pitch to local sports reporters and editors across the country.
The message from Swan, who was known for his spectacular receptions as a player, is spectacularly disingenuous. If the blackout rule were removed, the NFL’s hired gun says, the league would be “forced” to move games to cable channels to get more revenue.
Ah, so the rule that keeps fans from seeing games really keeps fans seeing games. Brilliant, Mr. Swann.
Nothing could be more arrogant and less fan-friendly. The NFL leopard is showing its spots here. Fans don’t matter, but their wallets sure do.
The NFL is the only major professional sports league that requires teams to sell out to broadcast a game on television locally. It’s an issue that seems remote in central Indiana, lest we recall that the Colts’ last home playoff game was almost blacked out.
When the first-round of the 2013-14 playoffs began in January, the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and Colts were all set to host a playoff game. However, because none of those games had sold out by the deadline, all three games were set to be blacked out in local markets.
A furious rally by all three franchises to get corporate sponsors and others to buy the remaining tickets ensured that all three games were broadcasted locally.
We all treat this as a matter of civic pride, with TV stations trumpeting the “generosity” of those writing the checks that further fatten NFL bank accounts. We should call it what it really is — a not-so-subtle form of fan blackmail that should not be sanctioned by government protection.
As well, it was just three years ago — remember the infamous Curtis Painter era — that blackout concerns were a weekly issue here. At some point, it likely will be that way again. Such is the reality of small markets with teams in down cycles. (The most recent Colts blackout was in 2002.)
This should matter to all NFL fans, sellouts or not, threatened blackouts or not.
As one FCC commissioner said this week before a fan rally in Buffalo, government should protect the public interest, not the private interests of the NFL.
The NFL already gets enough favors from Washington. An extension of the antiquated and self-serving blackout rule should not be one of them.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.