Tonawanda News

Bob Confer

February 7, 2012

CONFER: Time to end the NFL’s blackout rule

— — Long ago, in a much simpler time, ticket sales accounted for the majority of revenues for professional football teams. The business model of the National Football League has changed dramatically since then, and now it’s money is acquired from anywhere and anyone, utilizing a variety of sources that include television contracts, advertising and licensed apparel. This pervasiveness of the NFL in all forms of media and pop culture has caused gate revenues to constitute just 22 percent of league revenues, which are approaching $10 billion.

That significant change in marketing, as well as the ongoing expansion of the modes in which we acquire entertainment (cable and satellite TV and the Internet), has forced the Federal Communications Commission’s hand in reconsidering the Blackout Rule that it instituted in 1973. As we all know, it was put in place as a way to help the league sell out its games by almost forcing its local fans into the stands if they had hoped to see the affair. No sellout yields a blackout; it’s that simple. As a result of the NFL’s ascension to our national pastime — and not the FCC rule — the number of blackouts has seen a dramatic drop. What caused 50 percent of games in the 1970s to be blacked out in their local markets has caused just 8 percent of all games to be unavailable in recent years.

There were only 16 blackouts during the entire 2011 season. Of course, three of them affected Western New Yorkers. The Buffalo Bills were the third-most darkened team behind the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unlike the other two teams, which maintain some semblance of competitiveness, the Bills find it difficult to fill Ralph Wilson Stadium, due to the horrible product put onto the field. The Bills are beloved in Upstate New York, almost to the point of insanity (where else would Zubaz pants be considered high fashion?), but love, no matter how strong, cannot make a fan from the second poorest market in the league shell out $59 for a ticket — plus dozens more dollars for parking and concessions — to see a badly-performing team that hasn’t won 10 games since 1999 and only once this century broke the .500 mark.

The Bills brass don’t mind that you are occasionally inconvenienced by the inability to appreciate their team on the television, even though your allegiance to them is so strong — unlike theirs to you — that you will watch through such sustained misery. They are in favor of the blackout rule because it maintains their status quo. The rule plays perfectly into the plans of a conservatively run organization that is immensely profitable from mediocrity and finds no incentive to be otherwise. If the ownership doesn’t care to improve the team to the point of being average or moderately competitive, then it’s obvious that they don’t care about the fans as they should, because any great business should be driven to give the customer the very best product possible.

Bills fans, on the other hand, would be well-served by the end of the blackout rule. Immediately, they’d be able to watch three to five more games a year on TV, further strengthening their love-hate relationship with the red-white-and-blue. Ultimately, though, they would be rewarded with a stronger, better team and perchance a playoff season or a string of playoff seasons as the organization tried to realize the stadium’s potential. If the blackout rule were dropped, the Bills might actually have to rely on a winning team, rather than the crutch of a federal rule, to fill the stadium. They’d have to think big and probably take a temporary reduction in profit to make on-field success occur, things the Buffalo Bills seem incapable of in their current state.

If you want to see change on the field and make your voice heard about the nefarious Blackout Rule, there’s less than a week remaining to contact the FCC about it; the deadline is Feb. 13. You can file your comments electronically at fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs2/ or you can mail them to FCC Headquarters, 445 12th St., SW, Room TW-A325, Washington, DC 20554. You must refer to “MB Docket No. 12-3” as well as your name and address on all correspondence, and if you chose postal mail, you must submit your original and a photocopy.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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