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The musings of a Detroit-area sportswriter in the digital age.

Monday, January 16, 2012

End of the NFL blackout rule too late for Lions fans

How many Sundays were Lions fans left to watch reruns of "Cops" or bull riding while their team played behind the curtain of an NFL-imposed blackout? While it's true fans may not have wanted to see all eight of those home games the season the Lions went 0-16, but there have been times when local affiliates don't even show an alternate game in this market.
In that infamous 2008 season, five of the final six home games were blacked out. The only exception being the heralded Thanksgiving Day game. But Turkey Day isn't always a guarantee, at least not at the Silverdome, where there were 15,000 more seats to sell than the Lions' current home at Ford Field. 
There have been numerous Lions blackouts through the years, including Thanksgiving Day (1994) and the playoffs (1993, Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe anyone?) 
(Fun fact: I attended the first blacked out game in Ford Field history Oct. 26, 2008, of course a loss, to the Washington Redskins.)
The Lions had just two blackouts in Matthew Stafford's rookie season in 2009, and just one in 2010. There were, of course, no blackouts in 2011, as the Lions were actually interesting enough for fans to shell out hard-earned dollars, making the previously-scapegoated recession seemingly disappear (but not from national broadcasts).
Each NFL game since the 1960s has been broadcast on national TV. Today, four networks pay $20.4 billion for the privilege of showing the product. That number increases to $39.6 after the 2013 season, in a new deal recently agreed upon.
"The television rights to the NFL are the most expensive rights of not only any American sport, but any American entertainment property," Wikipedia says.
The current rules are actually an upgrade. Prior to 1973, all home games were blacked out in attempt to get more fans to their respective city's stadiums, regardless whether the game was sold out. What league could get away with treating its fans that way? Congress had to step in to rule the league use it's current 72-hour sellout policy.
In the Internet age, fans are much more savvy. Armed with laptops, HDMI cables and big flat-screen TVs, they find pirate sites carrying the national broadcast, projecting the ill-gotten broadcasts onto their big screens regardless of Draconian NFL measure. But should it even be that difficult? No.
The league's antiquated blackout rule, contrived when attendance was the driving force behind revenues, not TV deals; appears to be on its way out. While it's a welcome change, it's too late for Lions fans. And that's another good sign.
(Photo above from Time magazine, taken during a 2009 preseason game vs. Atlanta. There were just two blacked out games that season, Matthew Stafford's first.)


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