Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The NFL is in the middle of an impressive streak: Every game in every city has sold out this season.

The Arizona Cardinals, perennial losers, draw big crowds with their just-opened stadium. Fans of the New Orleans Saints, inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the rumored relocation of their team, now fill the Superdome.

As a result of the packed stadiums, the NFL has not had to enforce its local blackout rule, which prevents a team’s home game from being televised locally unless the game is sold out at least 72 hours in advance. Through six weeks, every home game has been televised locally, a remarkable streak, given that the league has gone blackout-free on just 13 other weekends since the rule was enacted in 1973.

Sellouts are common for most teams in big markets. The Washington Redskins, for example, fill 90,000-seat FedEx Field every week and once again boast the highest attendance in the league.

Attendance is up only slightly league-wide — it increased by less than 3,000 a game over last season — but a half-dozen teams in smaller markets that frequently played before smaller crowds now are also recording sellouts at every home game.

The Cincinnati Bengals, once a laughingstock, lured back fans with the team’s first playoff berth since 1990. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who frequently failed to fill Alltel Stadium, used a different means to gain sellouts: The owners reduced stadium capacity by closing off certain sections of seats.

Tickets for Saints games are expected to be sold out for the entire season as fans respond to calls to support the team as part of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in the city. The Oakland Raiders, despite starting the season with a dismal 0-6 record, have recorded sellouts and an 18 percent boost in paid attendance brought on by lower ticket prices this season.

The biggest turnaround, however, is in Arizona, where the Cardinals are sold out for the entire season at their new, futuristic facility in the Phoenix suburbs. The team that once struggled to attract more than 40,000 fans to Sun Devil Stadium now attracts more than 63,000 fans a game.

“It’s a beautiful stadium, and it inspires pride every time you drive by it,” said Lloyd Lawrence, an administrative assistant from Phoenix and Cardinals season ticket holder. “It’s nice knowing that it’s your own place. People talk about the team more than you’re used to, and there’s actual excitement about the team.”

All Cardinals home games now are broadcast locally, with five of them appearing on Fox affiliate KSAZ. Before this season, the last Cardinals home game broadcast by KSAZ was on Sept. 23, 2000. The highest number of blackout-free weeks in a single season before this year was four.

“From a ratings standpoint, it’s better for us,” said Pat Nevin, KSAZ’s vice president and general manager, who was often forced to show syndicated programs or movies instead of Cardinals games. “And it’s good for the viewers, too, because viewers didn’t understand the rule. There just got to be an awful lot of confusion for the fans.”

While attendance has been strong, television ratings also have increased. Ratings on Fox are up more than 10 percent over last season, and ESPN is reporting record-breaking viewership for its “Monday Night Football” telecasts. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has attracted more than 18 million fans, routinely making it one of the most-watched shows in prime time each week.

Kagan Research analyst John Mansell, who has studied the relationship between television and valuation of sports teams, said higher attendance can “put a pressure, of sorts” on ownership to raise prices for tickets and concessions. And more television viewers, he said, will allow teams to charge more for signs and visible sponsorships in the stadiums.

Meanwhile, fans said they hope more television exposure will have a domino effect on fan interest.

“It’s nice that fans are getting the games locally,” Lawrence said. “It’s immensely good, and here’s why — it used to be that people would watch only the road games on television. The games they were seeing were always the worst eight games the team played.”

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