The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had six blacked out games in 2012, the most in the NFL. With the addition of free agent Darrelle Revis and the continued growth of the team under head coach Greg Schiano, will more fans come out to see the Bucs?
Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the home city of origin regardless of whether they were sold out. This policy, dating back to the NFL’s emerging television years, resulted in home-city blackouts even during championship games. For instance, the 1958 “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was unavailable to New York fans despite the sellout. (Many fans rented hotel rooms in Connecticut to watch the game on Hartford TV, a practice that continued for Giants games through 1972.) Similarly, all Super Bowl games prior to 1973 were unavailable in the host city’s market.
The policy was put into effect when, in 1972, the Washington Redskins made the playoffs for only the second time in 27 seasons. Because all home games were blacked-out, politicians – including devout football fan President Richard Nixon — were not able to watch their home team win. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle refused to lift the blackout, despite a plea from United States Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. Kleindienst was to suggest that the United States Congress re-evaluate the NFL’s antitrust exemption.
Rozelle agreed to lift the blackout for Super Bowl VII on an “experimental basis.” But Congress intervened before the 1973 season anyway, passing Public Law 93-107, which eliminated the blackout of games in the home market so long as the game was sold out by 72 hours before game time. The league will sometimes change this deadline to 48 hours if there are only a few thousand tickets left unsold; much more rarely, they will occasionally extend this to 24 hours in special cases.
Alternatively, some NFL teams have arrangements with local television stations or businesses to purchase unsold tickets. Teams themselves are allowed to purchase remaining non-premium tickets at 34 cents on the dollar (the portion subject to revenue sharing) to prevent a blackout. Tickets in premium club sections have been excluded from the blackout rule in past years, as have unused tickets allocated to the visiting team. The Jacksonville Jaguars have even gone further and closed off a number of sections at their home EverBank Field to reduce the number of tickets they would need to sell. EverBank Field is one of the largest in the NFL, as it was built to also accommodate the annual Florida-Georgia game and Gator Bowl and was expanded for Super Bowl XXXIX even though it draws from one of the smallest markets in the league. The NFL requires that closing off sections be done uniformly for every home game, including playoff games, in a given season. This prevents teams from trying to sell out the entire stadium only when they expect to be able to do so.
The NFL authorized a new rule loosening the league’s blackout restrictions during the 2012 offseason. For the first time in NFL history, the new rule will no longer require a stadium to be sold out to televise a game; instead, teams will be allowed to set a benchmark anywhere from 85 to 100 percent of the stadium’s non-premium seats. Any seats sold beyond that benchmark will be subject to heavier revenue sharing. While most teams are participating in the new blackout rules, four teams, the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers, are retaining the previous blackout rule, as the new rule would require the teams to pay a higher percentage of gate fees to the NFL’s revenue fund.
The NFL defines a team’s market area as “local” if it is within a 75-mile radius of the team’s home stadium. Therefore, a blackout affects any market where the terrestrial broadcast signal of an affiliate station, under normal conditions, penetrates into the 75-mile radius. These affiliates are determined before the season, and do not change as the season progresses. Some remote primary media markets, such as Denver and Phoenix, may cover that entire radius, so that the blackout would not affect any other affiliates. However, in some instances a very tiny portion of a distant city’s market area can be within the 75-mile radius of a different city, thus leading to blackouts well beyond the targeted area. The most notable example is the Syracuse market’s blackout of Buffalo Bills games because a small section of the town of Italy of Yates County containing a handful of people lies within the 75-mile radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium while the entirety of the remainder of the Syracuse market lies outside of it. At the time Yates County was part of Syracuse DMA but it was switched to Rochester DMA because of exurb expansion with more and more immediate Rochester area employees living in Yates County and traveling to the Rochester for events. Despite this, the league still enforces Bills blackouts for Syracuse.
The NFL does allow in some cases for secondary markets to go beyond the 75 mile radius in part to help draw fans to attend the game. Some of these exceptions are in Charlotte where many of its secondary markets lie outside the 75 mile radius (Raleigh). Others include San Diego, primarily due to Los Angeles (116 miles from San Diego) having not had an NFL team since 1994, as southern parts of the Los Angeles market are within San Diego’s 75-mile radius.
An exception to the 75-mile rule is the Green Bay Packers’ market area. It stretches out to both the Green Bay and Milwaukee television markets. (The team’s radio flagship station is in Milwaukee, and selected Packer home games were played in Milwaukee until 1994.) Unofficially, and to a smaller extent, it also reaches the Escanaba/Marquette, Michigan market due to the presence of translator and satellite stations as well as extended cable coverage of Green Bay stations north into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. However, blackouts have never been required; the Packers’ home stadium, Lambeau Field, boasts a five-decade long streak of sellouts. The Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins also have sellout streaks that predate the current blackout rules, and so have not had any of their home games blacked out since 1972 (each of these teams also have long waiting lists for season tickets).
Similarly, no Super Bowl has ever been unavailable in the market of origin since the new blackout rules came into effect. Every Super Bowl except the first was a sellout, and, with the game’s high-profile status, a blackout is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.