NFL reacts as blackouts increase

Why have the Vikings placed such a high importance on improving the fan experience at their new stadium? Blackouts are on the rise and a real source of concern for the NFL.

In recent years, the NFL has become a victim of its own largesse. With high-definition televisions becoming more affordable, more in-stadium cameras to provide replay looks to fans at home and the rise in popularity of fantasy football, many casual fans have found the current NFL a more desirable product to watch in the comfort of their own homes rather than at the stadium.

While the NFL still has the "big event" feel, fans have found themselves increasingly not feeling the overriding need to attend games. The result has been blackouts for several teams – a trend that is growing at such a rate that the NFL started giving teams the option of lowering their capacity rate of tickets sold from 100 percent in order to avoid blackouts.

It has been a problem the league has faced for 40 years. Prior to 1973, all home games were blacked out to assure as many fans as possible would attend NFL games. Not surprisingly, the Green Bay Packers have the longest consecutive sellout streak. The last time Lambeau Field wasn't sold out to capacity was 1959. Only three other franchises have never had a home game blacked out since the rules changed in 1973 – Washington (last non-sellout in 1965), Denver (1969 – it's last year in the AFL) and Pittsburgh (1972).

Over the next 20 years, six more teams had their last blackout – New York Giants (1975), New York Jets (1977), San Francisco (1981), Chicago (1984), Dallas (1991) and New England (1993). Not coincidentally, the 49ers, Bears and Cowboys all won the Super Bowl the year of or the year before they saw their last blackout.

Over the next 10 years, eight more teams experienced their last blackout – Cleveland (1995), Tennessee (1997), Minnesota (1997), Miami (1998), Philadelphia (1999), Indianapolis (2002), Carolina (2002) and Seattle (2002).

As the NFL has improved its product, more teams have witnessed blackouts, including New Orleans (2004), Atlanta (2007), Kansas City (2009), St. Louis (2009) and Detroit (2010). But a funny thing happened in 2012. In something of a record the NFL doesn't want, five franchises had blackouts due to not selling enough tickets – Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, San Diego and Oakland. When you consider that teams like Minnesota and Jacksonville have avoided blackouts by accepting the NFL's offer to reduce the number of tickets that need to be sold to broadcast the game locally, almost a quarter of the NFL's teams have or would have had games blacked out locally.

If you need a reason to explain why the NFL has taken such sweeping steps to increase the fan experience in the stadium to rival the fan experience from the couch, look no further than the blackout/non-sellout numbers from 2012. It's a problem the league is trying to deal with – making all stadiums Wi-fi accessible and requiring replays that officials see to be broadcast on the big screens inside the stadiums as a couple of early approaches to the problem.

The bottom line is that success breeds a stronger fan base that wants to be at the games. The Packers remain the (green and) gold standard for selling out stadiums with the fans of the Redskins, Broncos and Steelers not far behind. Teams like the 49ers, Bears and Cowboys haven't had a blackout since they became Super Bowl champions shortly after their last non-sellout, and the Vikings haven't had a game blacked out since Randy Moss arrived in 1998 and the team went on one of the most magical single-season runs in league history.

The NFL is quietly working behind the scenes to address the in-stadium revenue issue because 2012 was, by league standards, the worst in the modern era in terms of tickets going unsold. The Vikings have been able to avoid blackouts – often partnering with a local TV station to buy up remaining tickets at a discount to assure that the game would be sold out. It's becoming a growing concern and it's one of the NFL's own design – they're presenting a product that is such a good home TV experience that it's hurting numbers at the gate.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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