- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

The mighty NFL drew a league-record 1,095,720 fans to its opening-weekend slate of games.

Then reality set in.

Three weeks into the season, the NFL faced a spate of TV blackouts for local coverage. It is too soon to tell whether the situation will exist in the short term, but the location and severity of some teams unable to sell out their home games caused significant concern.

Last weekend, the Indianapolis Colts failed to meet the Thursday blackout deadline for their home opener, a key matchup against division rival Tennessee. Jacksonville and Oakland also failed to sell out their home openers, with the Jaguars achieving the dubious honor for the first time in franchise history.

And woeful Arizona posted its second-worst home crowd in the desert, drawing 23,127 to its 38-0 loss to Seattle.

This weekend, the situation is only marginally improved. Arizona, playing host to Green Bay, again is nowhere near selling out the metal-benched, outdated Sun Devil Stadium. The Colts failed to meet the deadline for their home game against the Jaguars, creating the fourth local TV blackout in their last five home games.

And Seattle needed a 24-hour extension to the blackout deadline as well as large ticket buys from two corporate sponsors to keep its game against St. Louis on local TV. The fast-improving Seahawks also failed to sell out their opening home game on Sept.7 against New Orleans.

The NFL is not about to change its much-debated blackout rule, certainly not without any massive legal pressure. The rule has been long considered a cornerstone of the league. But the handful of blackouts clearly indicates even the most powerful of sports entities is not immune to an uneven economy, fan fatigue, and in the case of Arizona and others, pent-up fan disgust from annual abysmal play.

“TV is obviously a big deal in this league, but you cannot lose sight of the live gate,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports industry consultant who frequently works with NFL teams. “The Indianapolis situation is most troubling. You have a competitive team, a real icon of the league in [quarterback] Peyton Manning and a fairly intimate stadium [at RCA Dome]. Even if some people are turned off with the team due to rumors about moving to Los Angeles, you should still be able to find enough fans in that market for eight regular-season games.”

Some of the blackout situation also owes to marked changes in the fan experience for those watching games at home, compared to the live experience. At home, fans can enjoy hours of NFL action with high-definition televisions, DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket and all the instant replays they can handle.

For many, that in-home luxury easily trumps any value from being at the game in person, particularly when $7 beers and $25 for parking are added to the equation.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, for his part, says he is not concerned about what’s happening.

“We have TV blackouts every year, and thankfully, fewer than ever,” Tagliabue said. “We sold out a record 90 percent of our games last year.”

That may be true, but the repeated blackouts in Arizona, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Oakland still indicate the existing situation is far from full resolution. Several teams, including Detroit and Buffalo, escaped from blackout purgatory by putting a better product on the field and at the same time downsizing the home seating capacity through either a new facility or renovation.

That option, however, is difficult at best, and for many teams simply unrealistic. The Jaguars just downgraded seating capacity at Alltel Stadium through a $47 million renovation and still have trouble at the gate. On top of the blackout pressures, roughly 6 percent of the entire Jacksonville metro area must attend each game to avoid a blackout.

Arizona’s new stadium will open in three years, but with more than 64,000 seats. And renovations to Network Associates Coliseum, including an expansion of the seating capacity, were a major lure to bringing the Raiders back to Oakland in 1994.

“These blackouts do concern me,” said Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. “Some of these markets have too many seats in their stadiums. I don’t think it’s a real lack of interest in the game. But I do think we’ll need to find a way to work through this. The way [the blackout rule] stands is where it’s going to be. You can’t make special cases for specific teams.”

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