The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last week, the NFL announced a modification to its long-standing blackout rule. Instead of a home game being blacked out if 100% of tickets for that game are not sold, the league allowed them to be shown in their local markets if only 85% of tickets are sold.
What sounded like an easy fix to a controversial rule at first will instead cause the same old headaches for long-suffering fans. That's because teams whose games could be assisted by the new 85% sellout rule are instead choosing the status quo. The league is soliciting decisions from all 32 teams on which blackout threshold they will use - and they have until Sunday to make up their minds.
The Indianapolis Colts, who will be playing with first overall draft pick Andrew Luck under center, carry a 79-game home sellout streak into the 2012 season - and they plan to put it on the line as they opt not to scale back their sellout threshold. Miraculously, the team depending on folks like Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter at quarterback in relief of a post-op Peyton Manning still managed to sell out all of their games at Lucas Oil Field in 2011 (though the Fox affiliate in Fort Wayne had alternate plans for one week). There's no telling if Luck will play good football or stink up the joint in his debut NFL season. But a high-ranking Colts executive pleaded that "we need people in the stadium" because "we're a small-market team." That executive was also of the opinion that most of the NFL teams will forego the 85% rule and depend on SRO's to get games shown on local TV.
The San Diego Chargers are another team sticking with the old blackout policy. In 2011, the Bolts had two games blacked out, while just avoiding a third in their season finale at Qualcomm/Snapdragon Stadium. "This market has shown an ability to sell out games over the last ten years," remarked team CEO/executive VP AG Spanos, who argued that the blackout policy, even with its new 85% option, is "not... flexible."
As of Friday, we can add the Buffalo Bills, victims of three blackouts last year, to the mix. And Jacksonville Jaguars President Mark Lamping expressed intentions of standing pat with the old blackout rule; they managed to stave off blackouts in the 2011 season, including the season finale against the aforementioned Colts, who also sold out their home games this year, minus Manning.
The two teams to keep an eye on over the weekend are teams that had a combined eleven home games denied on local television due to poor ticket sales: The Cincinnati Bengals, despite qualifying for the playoffs last year, had six games blacked out. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went the other direction in losing the last ten games of their season overall, had five games warrant blackouts due to empty seats at Raymond James Stadium.
It would make sense for the Bengals and Buccaneers to take advantage of the new 85% blackout rule, especially the latter, whose city is still smarting from the economic downturn of four years ago. But the Bucs report that the hiring of new head coach Greg Schiano is wooing fans back to the ticket window.
And in fact, shortly after this post went public, the Buccaneers did indeed announce that they will lower their blackout barometer to an 85% sellout. (h/t Kyle Mayer.) "We hope that this move, along with lower ticket prices... will lead to more televised Buccaneer home games this year," said Bucs VP of business administration Brian Ford in a team release.
Meanwhile, the 85% blackout rule might be redundant for the Bengals due to the capacity of Paul Brown Stadium, which holds upwards of 65,000. One of the biggest critics of the original NFL blackout rule is Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D), who has called it "outdated" and "unnecessary."
Actually, Senator, it's unnecessary for a team to qualify for the playoffs in a season in which three quarters of its home games were blacked out during the regular season.
And if the teams most plagued by blackouts last year pass up on the opportunity to lower the blackout threshold, football fans will be wondering if this new 85% rule is unnecessary.
Hopefully, Tampa will Buc a trend.