NFL blackout rule needs to join black-white TVs on scrap heap


Sooner or later in the NFL, as in any sport, the past yields to the present. The bulky leather headgear of the 1930s became today's streamlined polyurethane helmets. The single-wing formation of the World War II era gave way eventually to the West Coast offense.

What apparently doesn't change in the NFL is its antiquated telecast policy. Over the growing protests of its fans and some of its television partners, the league continues to hold on to a more than 30-year-old plan that essentially restricts the number of games you can see each weekend.

"Any broadcaster would like the ability to televise games into all markets," said Ed Goren, Fox's executive producer. "It's not a very effective way to build a fan base."

Goren's boss, Fox Sports president David Hill, went even further. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Hill called the NFL's blackout and doubleheader policy "antediluvian, from an era when dinosaurs ruled the earth," and called for the policy to be "thrown out the window."

Indeed, there are signs that the league's television plan is under assault. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, angered because Sunday's Philadelphia Eagles-Arizona Cardinals game was blacked out in Philadelphia, even though 60,000 seats had been sold, suggested this week during a hearing on publicly financed stadiums that Congress should look into the blackout policy.

Specter's comments are particularly interesting, given that he is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has immediate authority over the NFL's antitrust exemption.

Here's a brief explanation of the NFL's blackout and doubleheader procedures:

Each market that has an NFL team is allowed to see up to three games each Sunday afternoon, with one network showing a doubleheader and the other network airing a single game on a weekly rotation.

That is, unless the local team is playing at home. Then, the two conference networks (CBS and Fox) may show only one game each, and one of those telecasts has to involve the home team, provided that game sells out at least 72 hours before kickoff. That's the case here Sunday, when the Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game will air on Channel 13 at 1 p.m., and the New Orleans Saints-San Francisco 49ers game will be seen at 4 p.m. on Channel 45.

If a game does not sell out in time, that telecast is blacked out, but the market can still see only two games.

These rules may seem silly, but to Ravens owner Art Modell, a pioneer of the league's television policy, they are a necessary evil.

"If we didn't have the blackout [policy], every team would see an erosion in their season-ticket base," Modell said.

Modell, who chaired the NFL's television committee for many years, said that fans would stay home and watch the games on television, particularly in cold-weather months, if not for the blackout.

Likewise, the doubleheader policy also protects the home gate, ensuring that fans don't pass up the local game to watch another game airing at the same time.

"One of our big problems is no-shows, and it's been growing and growing. It [lifting the rules] is a disincentive to come patronize our games in person," Modell said. "If we got rid of these rules, it would force us out of business in 10 years."

From this perspective, Modell's fears about the effect of unfettered television are understandable, but unwarranted.

Take the Orioles, for instance. In the club's eighth season in a new stadium, throngs continue to stream into Oriole Park, even with the telecast of virtually every home game on local television, drawn as much by the stadium experience as by seeing the team.

Modell correctly pointed out that there are more empty seats at Camden Yards than before, but can anyone doubt that the Orioles' poor performance this season is the biggest factor in the decision of fans to stay away?

Modell said he might be inclined to support a relaxation of the blackout rule, to 36 or 48 hours before kickoff, and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he could be persuaded to "compromise" on the doubleheader rule.

You'd think that league owners and officials might do something to help the networks, which are on the hook for almost $18 billion during an eight-year contract that has seven years to run, but the league seems to have turned a cold shoulder.

No other sport has such a restrictive television blackout rule, and it's time the NFL moved into the 20th century, before the 21st starts.

Around the dial

CBS (Channel 13) launches its college football slate tomorrow with a day-night doubleheader, commencing with Penn State visiting Miami at 3: 30 p.m., after a pre-game show at 3. Then, in prime time, Tennessee travels to Florida for a major Southeastern Conference showdown at 8 p.m.

Before the Tennessee-Florida game, Channel 13 gets the area ready for Sunday's Ravens game with Week 2 of "Report from the Ravens Zone," the team's coaches show, airing at 7 p.m.

The team's official pre-game show, "Kickoff from the Ravens Zone," airs Sunday at 11: 30 a.m., also on Channel 13.

Finally, ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" at 11 a.m. will include a Greg Garber feature on how play has been affected by new balls that are used exclusively by punters and place-kickers.

Week's ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore during the past week (R-Rating; S-Share):

Event Day Ch. R/S

Ravens-Rams Sun. 13 11.1/28

Bronc.-Dolphins Mon. 2 9.2/16

Orioles-Twins Thu. 13 8.2/13

Vikings-Falcons Sun. 45 7.8/17

U.S. Open Sun. 13 6.8/14

Orioles-Mariners Fri. 54 6.7/13

U.S. Open Fri. 13 4.9/13

Cowboys-'Skins Sun. 45 4.8/12

"Ravens Report" Sat. 13 3.9/9

U.S. Open Sat. 13 3.8/11

Pub Date: 9/17/99

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