The league said Monday that team owners voted for a one-year suspension of the long-standing blackout policy for the preseason and regular season. There were no blackouts last season, because the minimum number of tickets was sold for every game, and the league had only two blackouts in 2013.
Still, the experiment is a huge step for the NFL, whose blackout policy dates back decades. In the 1970s, half of NFL games were blocked from local TV because the games did not sell enough tickets. Some teams – Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Oakland, St. Louis and San Diego – have struggled to avoid blackouts, and the league is taking a bit of a gamble for 2015.
The policy stipulates that a home game must be sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff in order to be televised locally. Often, that deadline is extended to ensure sellouts if a club believes it can meet the criteria for lifting the blackout.
The league’s definition of a full house is not selling every seat but a large percentage of them, depending on the venue. The policy does not apply to suites or club seats.
Blackouts have been a part of the NFL since the 1950s, when team owners believed showing local games would damage attendance. In 1973, the current league policy was put into action.
The league said it will evaluate the impact of the suspension after the season.
“The blackout issue has been one of those seen as a negative about the league,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp and a close observer of the NFL. “The FCC says there shouldn’t be blackouts and the league says it would affect attendance. This is the perfect time, with no blackouts from last year, to test whether a no-blackout rule adversely affects the attendance at games.”
Last September, the FCC repealed its sport blackout rules, denying reinforcement of the league’s blackout policy. But the ruling did not affect the NFL’s ability to maintain the blackout policy through the existing broadcast contracts.
NFL blackouts have declined dramatically in recent years, dipping to 40 percent in the 1980s, 31 percent in the 1990s, 8 percent in the 2000s, and 5 percent in this decade, according to league figures.
Part of that decrease is due to the league redefining what is a sellout, lowering the required number of tickets sold.