If an NFL team wins its first game since 2007 but no one sees it, do the fans still celebrate?

This is exactly the dilemma Detroit Lions fans faced in week-three of the 2009 NFL season. For the first time since Dec. 23, 2007, the Lions actually won a game, defeating the Washington Redskins 19-14. But thanks to the NFL’s television blackout policy for non-sellout games, the only people in Detroit to actually see the game were the 40,896 fans who were in attendance at Ford Field.

According to the league’s blackout policy, a team’s home games can only be seen locally if they are sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. If tickets remain available after the deadline, fans within 75 miles of the host city are unable to watch the game, even if they have DirecTV’s Sunday NFL Ticket package. All road games are shown locally regardless of the number of tickets sold.

The intent of this policy is to guarantee as many sellouts and as much ticket revenue for teams as possible. The policy’s logic is that by threatening to black out non-sellout games, fans are more likely to buy tickets to ensure they can view their home team’s games.

Based on the results of a 1997 University of North Carolina study, the policy seems to be working in its aim to increase ticket sales and attendance. The report noted that game-day ticket sales increase by 11,000 and no-shows decrease by 5,000 when a game is blacked out. According to this study, fans seem spurred to purchase tickets and actually attend games when blackouts loom.

ost NFL fans could not even imagine their hometown team’s games being blacked out because most games are sold out well in advance of game day. In fact, only 19 of 512 games over the last two seasons have been blacked out locally, and many of those games involved only two teams: the hapless Lions and the Oakland Raiders, perennial NFL bottom feeders.

While blackouts are usually rare when times are good for the league and for the country, the economic recession of the past two years has begun to take its toll on attendance and ticket revenue. While many teams lowered or kept ticket prices steady for the 2009 season, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that as many as 51 games could be blacked out this season under a worst-case scenario, highlighting the clear fact that these are not ordinary times for fans – they now find tickets a luxury they simply cannot afford.

This is especially true in Detroit and Jacksonville, home of the Jaguars. While Detroit has a proud football tradition and a loyal fan base – they have stuck around through many terrible seasons – Detroit’s economic woes have proven too powerful for ticket sales. In a city that has been devastated by the decline of the domestic automobile industry and that faces an unemployment rate of over 17 percent, the majority of fans can no longer afford to cheer their Lions on in person.

This is also the case in Jacksonville, which has the unfortunate combination of a relatively small population and a large stadium to fill, not to mention a debilitated housing market. To alleviate the problem, the team has covered some sections of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium with tarps to reduce crowd capacity and increase the likelihood of sellouts. Despite these efforts, the Jaguars have not sold out either of their home games so far this season.

While the NFL’s blackout policy is reasonable during good or fair economic times, during which enough fans can afford tickets, the league should waive the restriction in trying times, as it did following Hurricane Katrina for Saints fans in New Orleans and in their adopted homes of Baton Rouge and San Antonio.

Indeed, watching your favorite team on television is not a right. The NFL is a private enterprise and if fans are unwilling to buy tickets they can reasonably afford, it is the fans’ own fault if the games are not televised. But when conditions that are out of the fans’ control diminish attendance, such as a natural disaster or a steep recession in certain cities, fans should not be punished.

If anything, the league should ensure that all local games are televised so fans have something to celebrate when times are bad. By doing so, fans could be uplifted by rooting for their hometown team, giving them a brief reprieve from the hardships they face.

In addition, the NFL would be seen as doing something good for fans, a welcome change for a league that too often is seen as greedy and against the interests of the average fan.

To date, the only thing the NFL has done to accommodate fans is to put the blacked-out games on its Web site the day after the games are played. While it is a small step in the right direction, it is insulting to expect fans to sit in front of their computers for three hours the next day to watch a game that has already happened.

So far this season four games have been blacked out, but many more are likely as teams fall out of contention. Few things are worse for marketing an event than showing empty seats.

But nothing is worse for marketing than showing no game at all.

Nick Macri is a junior in the College. The Big Picture appears in every other Tuesday issue of Hoya Sports.”

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.