Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two minds

The Federal Communications Commission recently accepted opinions about the National Football League's blackout rule. Not surprisingly, a great many people actually wrote to say something about it.

Who says the art of writing a letter is dead in our society?

I can guess how the tide of opinion came in on this matter. Fans want to see all the games on television. That's as predictable as politicians getting on the bandwagon in supporting those fans, because they think it's an easy issue to support and thus gain votes.

But the matters strikes me as more complicated than it seems from a quick glance.

On a personal level, I'd be more than happy to see every NFL game on television. I can not attend most games because of work. Yet seeing the games helps me in my job at the newspaper as I check out and edit stories about that same game. Events are clearer in my mind, and I catch more innocent mistakes.

Oh, and of course, I enjoy the games.

But I live in Buffalo, one of the few areas where blackouts are a problem. There were only 16 games blacked out in the NFL last season, and three of them were here. Tampa Bay and Cincinnati were the only teams ahead of Buffalo in that dubious department.

From there, we get down to the matter of personal philosophy. If the NFL were forced to show every game on television, we would be forcing the league to give away its product for free when it has tickets to sell. If you believe in free markets, that doesn't seem to be particularly fair.

I have heard the argument that the Bills, like many NFL teams play in a facility that is at least partially constructed with tax dollars. Therefore, why shouldn't the entire public be entitled to see the games? The problem with that is it would be a heck of exception to the usual rules of such support. In other words, the government funds a variety of enterprises through grants, loans, etc. Does it force any of those companies to give away its product as a trade-off for the financial backing? I don't think so. Otherwise, I'd have a new General Motors car in my driveway every year or two.

The Bills are particularly vulnerable to blackouts. They play in one of the smallest markets in the league, and they have a large stadium (75,000 seats). In addition, they play in an area where the December weather is, at best, iffy. Granted, the team hasn't been in the playoffs for more than a decade, but it's never been easy to sell late-season games no matter what the team's record.

This past season, the Bills played the Broncos on Christmas Eve in a meaningless game to them. There were fewer than 50,000 in the stands, and the game was blacked out. It's fair to say the building didn't have a great deal of electricity because of the relatively small turnout. How many more people would have stayed home had the contest been on television? Hard to answer that one, but "some" seems correct. That means the team loses money on possible ticket sales, and it loses other game-related revenues (parking, concessions, souvenirs, etc.) from those who choose to stay home.

Add up the considerations, and I guess I believe that if I don't buy tickets on a regular basis, I don't have much of a case to complain. I know that some fans can't afford to go to any games, and that some fans can't physically attend games due health issues. We'd all like to see the games, but I can't sit here and say we have a right to see the games.

Maybe the NFL will look over the economics involved, and decide that a no-blackout rule actually might help it. Such a move would help television ratings and making the TV package more valuable to networks and advertisers. It seems to work for the Sabres.

Again, that's the NFL's decision. In the meantime I'm an interested bystander, but only an interested bystander.

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