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Blackout change could pose risk to Buffalo and small markets

By Alan Pergament 

Heaven help those who get what they want.

I wrote those words almost two years ago about the Western New Yorkers who wanted the FCC to end the policy that essentially leads to blackouts of Buffalo Bills games that aren't sold out 72 hours in advance.

Now that the outgoing FCC chairman has proposed eliminating the 40-year-old federal blackout rules that the National Football League has voluntarily used to set its blackout policy, I repeat the phrase.

If you missed Saturday's Buffalo News, acting chairman Mignon L. Clyburn said "changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans
to attend games."

I'm sure many Bills were cheering the remarks. A Bills season ticketholder since the Jim Kelly era began, I wasn't one of them.

I also think many members of the media downplayed the idea that even if the rules are changed the NFL doesn't have to put the games that aren't sold out on free TV.

The FCC can set or suggest TV policy. It doesn't set business policy.

I sympathize with the disabled and the elderly with health problems that can't get to Ralph Wilson Stadium to see home games and understand why fans believe all games should be televised because taxpayer money pays for stadium upgrades. I just don’'t know what to root for.

My heart says root for the blackouts to end. My head says not so fast.

I would go with a more conservative play call and keep things the way they are.

I wasn't cheering Saturday's report because I can't remember a time that the 40-year-old rule has worked better than this season and don't want to take any risk that could damage a small market team like Buffalo.

The blackout rules really protect the small market teams in cold weather climates more than they protect teams in big markets like New York, Chicago, Boston and Dallas that have much larger populations that practically guarantee sellouts via season ticketholders at much higher prices than Bills fans pay.

The NFL said that only 16 games in the 2011 season were blacked out, with the small-market teams in Buffalo, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay having most of the blackouts. Only 15 games were blacked out in 2012.

For argument's sake, let's say the FCC changes the rules that prohibit cable and satellite systems from carrying blacked-out games, and the games land on TV regardless of whether they are sold out.

And let's say the NFL is right that the blackout policy helps it fill stadiums. and a rule change results in more empty seats in Buffalo and other small markets. What do you think the owners of those teams might consider doing?

Any reduced attendance could cause team owners to blame the communities for lack of support and feel more entitled to eventually move teams to larger markets where the games could be sold-out at higher prices.

It certainly is a scenario that Bills fans should fear since they already have enough reasons to worry about losing a team owned by a man in his 90s even with a new stadium lease.

The current policy is working, partly because the NFL appears to have taken heed of past FCC pressure and has voluntarily tweaked its blackout rules to allow games to be carried if ticket sales are 85 percent of capacity and the home teams agree to give more money for the unsold tickets to a league fund.

I'm not sure if the 85 percent rule has anything to do with it, but I believe every NFL game or close to it had been televised this season going into Sunday's games.

The Bills didn't participate in the 85 percent rule, but the Kansas City game Sunday was their fifth straight game televised locally. The idea that a few games might not have been televised was pretty much of a charade since you knew Ralph Wilson or some local business would play hero when a few thousand tickets remained.

Even if the next two home games don’t sell out (and I expect the charades may continue) and no local hero buys the remaining tickets, 14 of the Bills 16 games (including all eight road games and the Toronto game) will air locally.

I would rather lose risk two TV games a year than risk losing season ticketholders dropping out if they knew the cold weather November and December games would be carried locally.

I know that many optimistic fans don't believe a policy change will hurt game day attendance but I wouldn't want to take that risk and give the NFL any ammunition to eventually move teams. 

Additionally, enterprising fans have figured out ways to watch blacked-out games illegally on the internet anyway. The NFL is aware of internet piracy, which could be one of the reasons it would be willing to tweak its blackout policy again. If the FCC changes its blackout rules, I can envision the NFL changing its policy but not in a way you think.

I could foresee the league bowing to FCC pressure or political threats and considering putting any games that aren't sold out in advance on pay-per view TV for perhaps $10-$50 a game.

I doubt that it is what Bills fans have in mind.

Naturally, it is easy for politicians to climb aboard the anti-blackout movement led by the Buffalo Chapter of the Sports Fans Coalition. But sometimes rule changes can have long-term unintended consequences.

The taxpayers who feel they are entitled to see the games on TV because of the public money that subsidizes stadium improvements should understand that taxpayer money goes to plenty of private businesses without the government telling them how to change the way they conduct their businesses.

The Bills do provide the area with entertainment, pay taxes, support other businesses and have highly-paid employees who add to the tax base.

The restaurant owners who complain the blackouts hurt their business should realize those complaints are irrelevant and they would be hurt even more if the team ever left town. 

So go ahead and cheer the possibility of the blackouts ending. I just think the current policy is working just fine and small markets like Buffalo just might have more to lose than win with any change. 



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About Talkin' TV

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament has continued to blog about television topics since retiring in 2010 as The News' television writer after 28 years on the beat. From local on-air personalities to ratings to the latest on network and cable programming, he keeps you informed.

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