- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the NFL, the sky is always falling, even if what’s falling is gold bullion. This is particularly true when it comes to the league’s television blackout policy.

The owners fought for years to keep home games off local TV, convinced it would hurt attendance, shrink profits and weaken the game. They turned out, of course, to be wrong, wrong and wrong. Even today, in the worst economy since Red Grange was roaming the gridiron, teams are still playing before packed houses, franchise values are still going up and the NFL is still, far and away, the king of the sports mountain.

Some habits are hard to break, though. This is the league, after all, whose commissioner - with a totally straight face - told a House subcommittee in 1973, “The business of professional football is in fact a very small business indeed. The entire football industry, in an economic sense, ranks with the American rope-and-twine manufacturing industry.”

I bring this up because the National Rope and Twine League has had problems selling out games this season in a few markets. One of them is Detroit, where the Redskins play Sunday. If the game isn’t sold out by 1 o’clock Thursday afternoon (barring a last-minute extension), it’ll be blacked out within a 75-mile radius in accordance with league rules (as it was last year when the Snydermen visited the Motor City).

Everyone knows Detroit, center of the U.S. auto industry, has been as hard-hit as anybody by the economic downturn. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that the Lions, losers of 19 straight, would have trouble beating a team quarterbacked by Keanu Reeves. If there’s any franchise the NFL could cut a little slack to - and, say, declare a moratorium on blackouts - it’s down-on-its-luck Detroit.

But that isn’t the way the NFL thinks. Indeed, in some respects, the league’s thinking hasn’t changed much since 1957. That was the year the Lions played the Browns for the championship, and Michigan’s governor appealed to then-commissioner Bert Bell to lift the blackout because there was so much local interest.

Bell steadfastly refused. “I don’t think it’s honest,” he said, “to sell tickets to thousands of people, then afterward, when all the tickets are gone, to give the game to television.”

Somewhere along the line, the league seems to have misplaced its magnanimity - or maybe just its common sense. It’s reasonable, in fact, to wonder whether blackouts make any sense at all anymore. Sure, in the ‘50s, when television was in its infancy, it was more about turnstile clicks than Nielsen ratings. But in the era of the Internet and cable TV, it’s just as much about “eyeballs” and “furthering your brand” by any available means.

So why deny hundreds of thousands of fans the chance to watch the game live because a couple of thousand tickets go unsold? Is that good business? Would attendance in Detroit and elsewhere really drop significantly if fans knew they could watch every game in the comfort of their homes, sellout or no sellout?

Hard to imagine. As we’ve seen over the decades - decades in which attendance has continued to climb - there’s never any shortage of fans who simply Have To Be There. When the Lions went winless in 1942, I’ll just point out, they drew crowds as small as 6,044. When they went winless last season, though, they still managed to sell out Ford Field for three of their eight home games. And the NFL wants to reward this loyalty by invoking its blackout rule?

Besides, the league’s policy has always been a bit arbitrary. Does it strike anyone else as strange that the Detroit metro area is about half as populous as Chicago, and yet the Lions have to fill a bigger stadium (65,000) than the Bears (61,500) do to avoid a blackout? Heck, Denver is barely a quarter the size of Chicago, but the Broncos (76,125) have to fill a bigger stadium than the Bears’, too.

This is fair? (Don’t get me started on Green Bay.)

Also, stadiums keep getting larger, which makes sellouts more difficult. The Redskins used to play in a stadium that seated 53,039; now they play in one that seats 91,704. The capacity of the Cowboys’ stadium just increased from 65,111 to, well, 105,121 were on hand at their new abode for the Monday nighter against the Giants (though about 25,000 of them had to stand).

The NFL would do well to consider these things the next time it discusses its draconian policy. It should also remember the words of William Brodhead, erstwhile congressman from Michigan’s 17th District, who didn’t take kindly to the league’s resistance to anti-blackout legislation in the ‘70s.

“This is one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Millions of senior citizens, jobless and others would be denied a chance to see games at home so millionaire owners can increase their profits.”

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