Chill on Playoff Blackouts

Bees found their way into the bonnets of a whole bunch of sportswriters over the last couple of days as the prospect of local blackouts on the broadcasts of three of the four NFL playoff games this weekend was narrowly avoided.

First, let’s review the Blackout Rule (which I discussed recently here). It says that if the tickets to an NFL game are not sold out by 72 hours from kickoff, the broadcast will be blacked out in the local area. This is a pre-cable TV era punishment for a market for not “supporting” its team put in place by people who were afraid that TV was going to take away from the box office.

This is first-class jive on multiple levels and, at this point, everybody knows it.

Now, on to the news. This weekend, for those of you who don’t follow football, there were four scheduled playoff games taking place in Green Bay, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. As of 72 hours before game time, only Philly’s tickets had sold out. The NFL graciously extended the deadline for the other three teams, and the local communities and some sponsors came through and bought out the remaining tickets to avoid the blackout.

The NFL is, as I have said before, still the world’s great live entertainment property, but as I’ve been warning for a few years, there are issues. The most important of these issues is the in-stadium experience. I love football. I love live events and sports events, and I love the NFL, but I am not inclined to go to an NFL game live. And though I might go with a group of friends, I would never, ever take children to an NFL game. To quote myself from a few years ago, “The NFL in-stadium experience is awful, unless you’re a drunken idiot.”

Of course, the drunken idiot demographic can be lucrative, but its presence tends to drive other audiences away.

So what happened this week, and what do the three near-blackout games have in common? They are small markets who are having horrid weather. (Yes, I know Indianapolis plays in a dome.)

But, you’re saying, in days of old, when fans really cared, they filled the stadiums anyway! Yes, they did, but the ticket prices were practically giveaways before the last decade or so. I did a little digging, and if you go back a generation and bought a Philadelphia Eagles playoff ticket in 1980, a mediocre seat cost you $12. Now, adjust that for inflation, and it’s still just $33.94. Double that price to get yourself a better seat, and let’s say in 1980, you went to the NFC Championship Game for $70.

By contrast, the AVERAGE ticket to the game that happened yesterday sold for $310 on the secondary market, and even if you remove an 80% secondary market premium that puts the average face around $172. That’s nearly two and a half times the price (adjusted for everything) that you paid in 1980.

So, let’s tally it up:
• Small markets
• Snowpocalyptic weather
• Terrible in-stadium experience
• Prices that most people can’t afford
• Sold out anyway, just not three days before the event

I have literally been one of the first people to say that the NFL has a burgeoning ticket sales problem, and I don’t think the “solutions” being tried are addressing the issues. If the Blackout Rule didn’t exist, which it probably soon won’t, you’d have no idea it took until a couple of days before kickoff to sell out the last 5% of the inventory on these games.

Anybody out there in the ticket sales business who would like to trade places with sales like this? I’m guessing there are.

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