Is the NFL a victim of it’s own success?

September 20, 2010 |

Let me preface this by saying that baseball is always going to be my favorite sport. There’s no other game that’s as storied and timeless in my mind. Football runs an extremely close second in my mind; however the fact remains that football is probably the perfect game for television (due in large part to the 1958 championship game won by the Colts). Let me re-phrase that…the NFL is the perfect game for television. No other league is able to market itself as effectively or with as much success over the past twenty years or so. However Mark Maskey wrote a great article in the September 19th edition of the Washington Post which really made me think. The gist is basically hat the NFL’s television success is affecting the league at the box office.

According to Maske’s article, approximately 20% of the league’s regular season games are expected to be blacked out this season. Whether or not that truly ends up being the case remains to be seen, however the NFL does expect attendance to be down for the third straight season. So how is there a correlation? In the past ten years or so, America’s satellite customers have fallen in love with NFL Sunday Ticket. For a nominal fee of $300 plus, you can watch every game in the league each week. (This has also grown with the advent of fantasy football, as people hae been able to kee track of each of their players.) So many people have come to the conclusion that it’s better to pay the money to get all of the games rather than go to their home team’s game. The past two seasons has also seen the NFL Redzone channel, which is sort of a junior or vanilla version of Sunday Ticket in that you can see any game where a team’s in the redzone.

So do these things (among others) affect attendance? Survey says: probably. While you’d have to survey people to see if they would truly rather sit at home and watch every game in the league rather than going to the stadium on a Sunday afternoon in order to know for sure. Speaking for myself, I’d still rather go out and see my favorite team (the Redskins) play than sit at home and watch every other game. However I think that you also have to look at where the blackouts occur. Neither Baltimre or Washington will have a game blacked out this year. You can also add cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago to that list. Those places all support thei respective teams every week. However when was the last time Jacksonville sold out a game? (Probably the last time the Steelers played down there.) The owner of the Tampa Bay Bucs, along with a few local non-profits had to buy up the remainder of the Bucs’ tickets on opening weekend to avoid a blackout locally. Buffalo has always been a tough place to sell out, as has been St. Louis and Detroit of late.

With regard to the franchises I named that might have problems with blackouts, the one thing they all have in common is that they all struggle on the field. However the Redskins have struggled for years as well, along with the Cleveland Browns. Regardless of why anyone has blackouts, I would submit that none of those places have issues with selling tickets due to the fact that the NFL’s television product is so good. In fact, I’ve always thought of Buffalo as having very good fans; if one of those teams was to start winning, the fans would be there. However the other aspect that Maske mentions in his article is the recession. With unemployment at near 10%, it’s hard to justify some of the pricing that we see at NFL stadiums. And I’m not even talking about ticket prices; let’s remember that if you want an officially licensed NFL replica jersey, it’s going to run you $89.99 plus tax. Shirts and hats generally run in the $20-$30 range. The league was able to justify that kind of money a few years ago, however today might well be a different story with salaries down, raises on hold, and people out of work.

I’m not sure that I’m prepared to agree with the notion that NFL Sunday Ticket and the Redzone channel is detracting from NFL attendance. I’ve seen games in a few different stadiums, and the gameday experience at an NFL game is still unlike anything else in sports. Anyone that would rather sit at home and watch Sunday ticket rather than sit with thousands of their best friends at the stadium might want to question what they want out of the NFL. However I would say that it might benefit the league to think about how they’re treating their core customers. Can a construction worker that just lost his job afford a $90 jersey or an $80 game ticket? Probably not. The ticket and concessions prices of course are set by each team, however you catch my point I’m sure.

This brings me back to the blackout thing. I would strongly suggest that the league considered lifting the 72-hour rule. With a potential lockout looming, the NFL stands to face an image problem, so lifting the blackout rule for the remainder of this season would show good faith to the fans. Again, this doesn’t apply to teams in this region, as they’re always sold out. However I do feel badly for people in places such as Detroit (who’ve been hit hard by the recession) that truly can’t afford to get out to a game. And then to add insult to injury, the league blacks out the game on local television because they couldn’t sell out.