THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
It has been years since the New York Giants and New York Jets home games have not been seen on local TV. Both National Football League franchise sell out their home contests annually if we take the team's ownership at their word. That's important to CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN because they know home games will be available in the New York market. In southern New Jersey, it has been a long time since Philadelphia Eagles home games have been blacked out as Eagles fans have filled the stadium.
The Giants last home blackout was in 1975 when the team played at Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens. The Jets last blackout was in 1977 when the team was still in Flushing. Philadelphia's last blackout was in 1999.
Still New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg along with Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking for the end of the National Football League's blackout policy. The Senators referred to the 1973 NFL-Congressional agreement which allowed teams to continue blackouts if a stadium was not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff "a relic of a different time" and added "it is time for [it] to end."
The Senators also contended that "these blackouts are ruining the experience of rooting for the home team and are unjustly hurting fans."
Needless to say, the National Football League owners disagree hoping to pressure more people into buying unsold stadium seats so they can see the game although the league's official wording was a bit different.
The blackout rule according to the NFL "supports contractual provisions that are fundamental to broadcast television and thereby enable universal distribution of high quality content, including NFL football, to all Americans and to our fans—all at no cost to those fans. Sports blackout policies, supported by the FCC's sports blackout rule, promote live attendance and thus improve the stadium experience."
There were just 16 games blacked out in 2011 out of the league's 256 regular season games. The Cincinnati Bengals had six of the team's eight home games blacked out and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans were blacked out of home games five times. Additionally there were blackouts in Buffalo and San Diego.
The ball is now in the FCC's court.
The blackout policy is indeed a relic of a different era. Los Angeles Rams fans from 1949 and 1950 are to blame for the rule although NFL owners had problems with TV going back to 1946. The NFL owners in 1946 passed a rule prohibiting the broadcast of other team’s games into the home territory when that team was playing at home. The rule, determined to be anti-competitive, was modified four years later due to pressure from the Justice Department to change it.
In 1949, the Rams franchise drew roughly 300,000 paying customers to games at the Coliseum. In 1950 the team's TV network began to telecast Rams home games in the greater Los Angeles area and that year the team drew only about 145,000 fans. After the season then NFL Commissioner Bert Bell urged teams to blackout home games in an effort to keep the people in the stands for home games instead of in front of the television.
George Preston Marshall's Washington Redskins franchise also televised all of the team's games, six home games and six road games. The blackout rule took effect in 1951.
By 1953, the NFL was in the courtroom defending its blackout policy, an opinion supported by Judge Allan K. Grim, who upheld the league's blackout policy believing that it was not in violation of anti-trust laws.
The blackout policies resurfaced in 1957, when the NFL Championship Game was blacked out in the host city of Detroit despite being a sellout. The blackout policy was challenged again in 1962 when the Giants hosted Green Bay in the NFL Championship at Yankee Stadium. Judge Edward Weinfeld of the U. S. District Court upheld the NFL position and denied an injunction, which would have forced CBS to televise the game in the New York City area. The blackout policy would remain in effect until 1973, when Congress passed experimental legislation requiring any NFL game that was declared a sellout 72 hours prior to kickoff be made available for local TV. The legislation was set to expire in 1976 but never did.
The 1973 legislation ruined a cottage industry in Connecticut where New York Giants fans, who could not get a seat at Yankee Stadium, would travel so they could watch games on WTIC, Channel 3 out of Hartford in area hotels or restaurants.
Television and the Federal Government have played a huge role in the NFL's development. CBS in particular nudged the league into a different direction in 1960 as the mom and pop store-type NFL owners of that day had no idea what to do with their product.
The Bidwill family's Chicago Cardinals franchise relocated to St. Louis for the 1960 season, in an effort to eliminate the market cannibalization taking place between the Cardinals and the Bears in Chicago, the second largest television market at the time. CBS, which was televising NFL games on ad hoc or regional networks, needed a solution to the Bears-Cardinals two-market setup. Since the teams never played head to head unless they played one another, and the league was blacking out home games, William Paley’s CBS' WBBM never showed games in Chicago.
On March 13, 1960 the Cardinals moved to St. Louis after receiving $500,000 for "improvements" at Soldier Field, some of the funding coming from CBS. In effect, the Cardinals were not just "allowed" to move to St. Louis, but rather were paid to do so by the Bears, the NFL, and CBS.
The year 1961 was important in forming the NFL broadcasting system in use today. In its early years, football television contracts were locally negotiated. As television became widely available in homes in the 1950’s, the NFL was under a court-ordered injunction that prevented it from signing a single league-wide contract with a network. Instead, each NFL team had a separate deal with a local television station. For instance in 1960, the NY Giants received $340,000 for their deal, but the Green Bay Packers received $105,000. The newly formed American Football League, which did not have to live with the NFL injunction, pooled their eight franchises for broadcast rights and signed a national network contract with the struggling American Broadcasting Company or ABC.
The deal was brokered by Jay Michaels, the father of Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels.
Following the AFL-ABC pact, the NFL pooled the then-13 teams as one and reached an agreement with David Sarnoff's NBC in 1961. The courts vacated the contract with NBC. On September 30, 1961, after much debate including a DOJ investigation, Congress passed Public Law 87-331, better known as the Sports Broadcasting Act, which exempted professional sports leagues from antitrust scrutiny allowing them to sell TV rights on a league-wide basis instead of team by team. The NFL's 14 teams became one entity and the league then signed a deal with Paley's CBS, who outbid Sarnoff and NBC for the 1962 and 1963 seasons.
By 1969, TV income had risen to $1.6 million per team in the NFL and $900,000 per team in the AFL. The NFL and AFL merged in 1966 with a 26 team NFL operating in 1970 having an agreement with all three broadcast networks at the time, CBS, NBC and a deal with ABC for a Monday night game of the week.
The 32 team National Football League of 2012 has a $24 billion deal partnership with Sumner Redstone's CBS, Disney's ESPN, Rupert Murdoch's FOX syndication (technically FOX is not a network), Comcast/GE's NBC and DirecTV. Clearly the industry is not hurting and even the teams that don't sell out 72 hours prior to kickoff have filled the good majority of seats in the building.
Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer show home games even if the venue is not sold out. The NFL needs to do the same without the FCC or Senate pressure.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com and Amazon and featured on Google books.