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The first weekend of NFL playoffs saw down-to-the-wire, thrilling games in three of the four contests. It also saw something unusual – a scramble to sell out the first-round playoff games.
In Indianapolis, Cincinnati and, of all places, Green Bay, clubs scrambled, pleaded and cajoled their fan bases to buy tickets to assure sellouts and thus avoid the NFL mandated media market blackouts. To no one’s surprise, enough corporate buyers turned out at the last minute to assure the games would be shown in the home teams’ market.
If nothing else, the scramble for a sellout, and the subsequent publicity surrounding the difficulty to sell tickets, has shone a light on the now-antiquated NFL blackout rule. In fact, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has called on the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate the Sports Blackout Rule, which was instituted in 1973.
Now, many believe that rule has outlived its usefulness, mainly because the NFL now enjoys the richest television contracts in sports—in 2011 the NFL announced a nine-year extension to its TV packages with Fox, NBC and CBS, under which, according to Forbes, the networks are expected to pay about 60% more than under the old contract.
The new deal, which kicks in after the 2013 season, means the networks will pay about $3 billion a year to show games. Throw in deals with the NFL Network, DirectTV and Westwood One, among others, and NFL teams will split nearly $7 billion in media money per year starting in 2014. That’s more than $200 million per team before a ball hits the turf, no matter who’s blacked out where.
The second reason the blackout rule has seen its time come and go: Ticket sales are an archaic measure of fan support.
It has long been the belief, if a city’s fans won’t buy lots of tickets, they must not be loyal fans. In this day of social media connections, 70” flat screen televisions and RedZone updates, just the opposite is true. Fans are SO involved (especially those who play in fantasy leagues) they want to know what everyone is doing in the league, not just their own team. They’re bigger fans than ever, not just of their team, but of the sport overall.
So what does that mean for an event that you want to bring to your region? Just this: Yes, you want people to attend, and if you bring in a sport or an event that has lots of local participants, all the better to bring in attendees and volunteers. But don’t think you’re going to reach your budget goals by selling $5 tickets to a soccer tournament.
You might have one of the top golf participation areas in the nation, but hold a junior golf tournament in your city and you might find out that you can’t sell tickets. It’s not that people don’t love to watch golf, they love to PLAY golf – usually at the same times your junior tournament is being held.
Or maybe you want people to sample your event—watch youth lacrosse for the first time, for example. What better way to encourage people to stop by than to offer free admission.
During the deep freeze of January 2014, the University of Cincinnati women’s basketball program offered free admission to its game with Rutgers, with complimentary hot chocolate and coffee (courtesy of Coach Jamelle Elliott) for those who braved sub-freezing temperatures to come out. The attendance that night was almost twice what a midweek game usually averages.
The bottom line is, the bottom line. Sponsor support is the life blood of your event. Get your costs covered by sponsorship, and don’t roll the dice on ticket sales. In fact, many youth events have free admission—or tickets at family-friendly prices.
The NFL blackout rule is as dated as event organizers depending on ticket sales to pay for your event. Ticket sales are not a measure of support for the sport. The event world knows that—the NFL needs to realize that as well.
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