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The National Football League television blackout policies are among the strictest television blackout policies among the four major professional sports league in North America. Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. This makes the NFL the only major professional sports league that requires teams to sell out in order to broadcast a game on television locally. Although nationally-televised games in the other leagues are often blacked out on the national networks they are airing on in their local markets, they can still be seen on their local regional sports network that normally has their local broadcasting rights.
Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the home city of origin regardless of whether they were sold out. This policy, dating back to the NFL's emerging television years, resulted in home-city blackouts even during championship games. For instance, the 1958 "Greatest Game Ever Played" between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was unavailable to New York fans despite the sellout. (Many fans rented hotel rooms in Connecticut to watch the game on Hartford TV, a practice that continued for Giants games through 1972.) Similarly, all Super Bowl games prior to 1973 were unavailable in the host city's market.
The policy was in effect when, in 1972, the Washington Redskins made the playoffs for only the second time in 27 seasons. Because all home games were blacked-out, politicians – including devout football fan President Richard Nixon — were not able to watch their home team win. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle refused to lift the blackout, despite a plea from United States Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. Kleindienst was to suggest that the United States Congress re-evaluate the NFL's antitrust exemption.
Rozelle agreed to lift the blackout for Super Bowl VII on an "experimental basis." Nonetheless, Congress intervened before the 1973 season anyway, passing Public Law 93-107, which eliminated the blackout of games in the home market so long as the game was sold out by 72 hours before game time. The league will sometimes change this deadline to 48 hours if there are only a few thousand tickets left unsold; much more rarely, they will occasionally extend this to 24 hours in special cases.
Tickets in premium club sections and luxury suites have been excluded from the blackout rule (indeed modern NFL stadiums have reduced general seating in favor of club seating and luxury suites, as this makes it easier to sell out the stadium and avoid blackouts, and this revenue does not have to be shared with other franchises), as have unused tickets allocated to the visiting team. Alternatively, some NFL teams have arrangements with local television stations or businesses to purchase unsold tickets. Teams themselves are allowed to purchase remaining non-premium tickets at 34 cents on the dollar (the portion subject to revenue sharing) to prevent a blackout.
The NFL requires that closing off sections be done uniformly for every home game, including playoff games, in a given season. This prevents teams from trying to sell out the entire stadium only when they expect to be able to do so. For instance the Jacksonville Jaguars closed off a number of sections at their home EverBank Field to reduce the number of tickets they would need to sell. EverBank Field is one of the largest in the NFL, as it was built to also accommodate the annual Florida-Georgia game and Gator Bowl and was expanded for Super Bowl XXXIX even though it draws from one of the smallest markets in the league.
The NFL authorized a new rule loosening the league's blackout restrictions during the 2012 offseason. For the first time in NFL history, the new rule will no longer require a stadium to be sold out to televise a game; instead, teams will be allowed to set a benchmark anywhere from 85 to 100 percent of the stadium's non-premium seats. Any seats sold beyond that benchmark will be subject to heavier revenue sharing. While most teams participate in the new blackout rules, four teams, the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Indianapolis Colts, and the San Diego Chargers, retain the previous blackout rule, as the new rule would require the teams to pay a higher percentage of gate fees to the NFL's revenue fund.
The NFL defines a team's market area as "local" if it is within a 75-mile (121 km) radius of the team's home stadium. Therefore, a blackout affects any market where the terrestrial broadcast signal of an affiliate station, under normal conditions, penetrates into the 75-mile radius. These affiliates are determined before the season, and do not change as the season progresses. Some remote primary media markets, such as Denver and Phoenix, may cover that entire radius, so that the blackout would not affect any other affiliates. However, in some instances a very tiny portion of a distant city's market area can be within the 75-mile radius of a different city, thus leading to blackouts well beyond the targeted area. The most notable example is the Syracuse market's blackout of Buffalo Bills games because a small section of the town of Italy in Yates County containing a handful of people lies within the 75-mile radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium while the entirety of the remainder of the Syracuse market lies outside of it. Yates County was previously part of the Syracuse DMA, but it was later switched to the Rochester DMA because of exurb expansion with more and more immediate Rochester area employees living in Yates County and traveling to Rochester for events. Despite this, the league still enforces Bills blackouts for Syracuse.
The NFL does allow in some cases for secondary markets to go beyond the 75 mile radius in part to help draw fans to attend the game. Some of these exceptions are in Charlotte where many of its secondary markets lie outside the 75 mile radius (Raleigh). Others include San Diego, primarily due to Los Angeles (116 miles (187 km) from San Diego) not having an NFL team since 1994, as southern parts of the Los Angeles market are within San Diego's 75-mile radius.
An exception to the 75-mile rule is the Green Bay Packers' market area. It stretches out to both the Green Bay and Milwaukee television markets. (The team's radio flagship station is in Milwaukee and selected Packer home games were played in Milwaukee until 1994.) Unofficially, and to a smaller extent, it also reaches the Escanaba–Marquette, Michigan market due to the presence of translator and satellite stations as well as extended cable coverage of Green Bay stations north into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. However, blackouts at the Packers have never occurred; the Packers' home stadium, Lambeau Field, boasts a five-decade-long streak of sellouts. The Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins also have sellout streaks that predate the current blackout rules, and so have not had any of their home games blacked out since 1972 (each of these teams also have long waiting lists for season tickets).
Similarly, no Super Bowl has ever been unavailable in the market of origin since the new blackout rules came into effect. Every Super Bowl except the first was a sellout, and, with the game's high-profile status, a television blackout is highly unlikely.
Another policy to encourage sellouts is that no other NFL game can air opposite the local club's broadcast on the primary market's affiliate due to NFL rules or due to a blackout.
Special exemptions are in effect when other events (US Open Tennis Championships Final or Major League Baseball playoffs) aired on one of the two Sunday networks, which typically was a 4:30 PM start time. The network airing the event is given the single game at 1:00 PM that week, and can broadcast games opposite the team that has a home game on their network at the same time during the affected weeks. This was most notably used by CBS for tennis and all three networks that have aired Sunday games have used the exemption for baseball.
Each TV market, including one hosting a game that is not sold out, is assured of at least one televised game in the early and late time slots, one game on each network, but no network doubleheader in the home market of a game that is not sold out.
The New York and San Francisco Bay Area media markets typically get fewer doubleheaders than other markets as each has two teams, and one of them is at home virtually every week. The main exception is when one of the teams is idle, has its home game televised on the doubleheader network, or is chosen for a prime time game. This policy affects only the club's primary market, not others with signals that penetrate inside the 75-mile radius. It also does not affect viewers of NFL Sunday Ticket in the primary market; all other games remain available.
If a home game is unavailable locally because it is not sold out before the 72-hour deadline, one of the following things will happen:
The 2006 NFL rule change allows NBC and the NFL to reassign game start times for Sunday games only, beginning in Week 11, although the NFL changed it to Week 5 in 2014 (with the rule that only two of the six possible Sunday Night games could have reassigned start times). Therefore, if a late season match features a game with no playoff implications (both teams eliminated, or a game with no seeding implications), often with the home team already eliminated, and thus would be unlikely to sell out, it will be moved to Sunday afternoon in favor of a better game (a prime example being in 2010 when the Chargers-Bengals game was moved to the afternoon in favor of the Vikings-Eagles game, which ended up being played on Tuesday due to severe weather in the Philadelphia area; the Bengals game ended up being blacked out, and thus WKRC-TV and two other nearby CBS affiliates could not carry the game).
Critics claim that these blackout policies are largely ineffective in creating sold out, filled stadiums. They contend that there are other factors that prevent sellouts, such as high ticket prices and low enthusiasm for a losing team. Furthermore, blackouts hurt the league; without the television exposure, it becomes more difficult for those teams with low attendance and few sellouts to increase their popularity and following as the exposure decreases.
Conversely, the NFL has sold out well over 90 percent of games in recent seasons. Additionally, many teams sell out their entire regular season schedule before it begins (usually through season-ticket sales), and so there is no threat of a blackout in those markets.
In 2005, for the first time in its history, the NFL lifted the blackout policies for a team: the New Orleans Saints. Due to damage by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints split their home games between Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and the Alamodome in San Antonio. Baton Rouge is a secondary Saints market and is subject to blackouts when games at the Superdome carried by over-the-air networks do not sell out, since CBS affiliate WAFB and Fox affiliate WGMB penetrate within 75 miles of the Superdome, even though the city limits of Baton Rouge are more than 75 miles from the Superdome (the Baton Rouge DMA is not blacked out when Saints games televised by ESPN or the NFL Network do not sell out).
San Antonio is an unofficial secondary market for the Dallas Cowboys (in that the Cowboys games are routinely televised in that area, but the area is not within the 75 mile blackout radius), and two of three 2005 Saints games played at the Alamodome were not broadcast anywhere in Texas, as the start times for the Cowboys and Saints games conflicted on those dates. The only game of the San Antonio dates not to sell out, in week 4 against Buffalo, was televised locally by CBS (on KENS-TV) as the Cowboys had a late game that day at Oakland. (San Antonio Fox affiliate KABB, therefore, never broadcast a Saints home game in San Antonio, as the Cowboys and Saints are in the NFC, and the Cowboys have a larger following in Texas.)
The blackout policies extend even to the Pro Bowl; if that game is not sold out, it is unavailable in the home media market. From 1980 through 2009, and also from 2011 to 2014, the game was played in Halawa, making the applicable market the entire state of Hawaii. The 2010 game was played in the Miami area.
Due to decreasing ticket sales, the league significantly softened its blackout policy in 2009. Though the traditional rules still apply, the league is using some of its new media features to provide access to untelecasted games. For instance, the league will not subject its "RedZone" channel to any blackouts. In addition, complete live games will be made available for free online on the Monday (except Monday Night Football), Tuesday, and Wednesday following the game if the game is blacked out, using the league's Game Rewind package.
As of the 2013 season, the Washington Redskins (last game not sold out was in 1965), Denver Broncos (joined the NFL in 1970 per AFL-NFL merger agreement; last game not sold out was in 1969), Pittsburgh Steelers (last game not sold out was in 1972), Houston Texans (founded in 2002) and Baltimore Ravens (founded in 1996) have never had a blacked out game under the post-1973 rules. However, there have been blackouts in the post-1973 era in the Houston market (1995) and Baltimore market with previous franchises.
The league also designates "secondary markets," usually adjoining primary markets (generally areas within 75 miles of a stadium but not having their own team) that are also required to show the local team. Generally, these secondary markets must show the away games but are not obligated to telecast the designated team's sold out home games.
Their decision on whether to show home games typically depends on whether the NFL-designated local team is perceived to be the most popular in the market. For example, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is a secondary market to the Baltimore Ravens. Therefore the CBS station in Harrisburg, WHP-TV, must show all Ravens away games.
However, since there are many Pittsburgh Steelers fans in the region, when the Ravens are home at the same time the Steelers are playing, that station shows the latter. Harrisburg is thus considered a battleground territory for the Steelers–Ravens rivalry.
The same applies for the Orlando, Florida metropolitan area, as its local CBS affiliate WKMG broadcasts both Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars games. In some cases, the NFL has the two teams play at different times to accommodate the entire state of Florida (but only when CBS has the doubleheader, or if one of the teams is on Fox). WKMG lobbied to carry a Dolphins game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005, but the NFL refused – as Orlando is officially a Jaguars secondary market, the station had to carry the Jaguars game at Pittsburgh. This issue again came up in 2013, in Week 2 when the late game CBS window featured two games: Broncos at Giants (which was a much-hyped matchup between brothers Peyton and Eli Manning) and Jaguars at Raiders (a matchup of two teams that weren't expected to contend for the playoffs); again, since Orlando is a secondary market of the Jaguars, WKMG was required to carry the latter game; the station notoriously apologized for having to show the Jaguars game.
There are rare instances where a market will have two teams claiming their territory.
For instance, Youngstown, Ohio lies roughly halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, is within the 75-mile radius for both cities and is considered a battleground territory in the Browns–Steelers rivalry. Therefore, local CBS affiliate WKBN-TV must show whichever team is playing an away game. If one game is on CBS while the other is on Fox, both games will air. (WKBN also owns low-powered Fox affiliate WYFX-LD and simulcasts WYFX on its second digital subchannel in HDTV along with the main WKBN channel.)
If both the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers are scheduled to play at the same time on CBS or Fox and the location of the game does not matter, WKBN/WYFX will usually air the Browns game. However, on December 2, 2012, when the Browns played at the Raiders and the Steelers played at the Ravens in the late window of a CBS doubleheader, WKBN aired the Steelers game as the former was between two teams that were out of playoff contention, while the latter was between two teams that were in playoff contention (as well as the AFC North title), and was also the main game of the late CBS window. The fan base is evenly split between those two teams, with the San Francisco 49ers also having a small following due to team owners John and Denise DeBartolo York being based out of the Youngstown suburb of Canfield, Ohio.
Similar issues concerning the same market teams happens on the Wheeling, West Virginia CBS affiliate WTRF, who runs CBS on its main subchannel, with a Fox affiliate on its first subchannel (Fox Ohio Valley). At times, WTRF will run a Fox broadcast game on the subchannel opposite a Browns or Steelers home game that aired on the CBS channel regardless, and vice versa.
Many markets serve as "unofficial" secondary markets for the league's various teams due to rooting interest in those markets. As they are not designated by the NFL as official secondary markets, they technically are not required to air any games, but will do so to please the fanbases. For example, in Texas, virtually all CBS and Fox stations carry the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, respectively when those teams are on different networks. However until 2010, KTVT in Dallas rarely aired Texans games unless it had no other option. But for the 2011 season, it carried most Texans games, except for a handful of conflicts. KRIV in Houston always airs Cowboys games if it is not prohibited from doing so by NFL rules.
The New England Patriots, especially since Tom Brady became quarterback, also have almost all of New England as unofficial secondary markets (Providence is an official secondary market). Not only do all or almost all CBS or Fox (depending on the game carrier) affiliate in New England carry Patriots games, but also their preseason network covers the entire region. Hartford is close to New York, and sometimes has aired a New York Jets game instead. However, this rarely occurs.
The New York Giants have most of the markets in upstate New York (with the exception of Western New York, which belongs to the Buffalo Bills) as unofficial secondary markets. Albany is considered an official secondary market of the Giants. Also, the Burlington, Vermont Fox affiliate WFFF-TV has become an unofficial market for the Giants, preventing the Patriots from having full control over all New England markets. An example of this occurred on September 27, 2009, when the Giants hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Patriots hosted the Atlanta Falcons, both at 1:00 ET. WFFF-TV, which covers most of the state of Vermont and also extreme northern New York, broadcast the Giants game, as it is used to airing the team's games as a Fox affiliate. More recently, however, WFFF-TV has aired Patriots games over the Giants games when the former is featured on the network. Boston's WFXT generally (but not always) carries Fox's New York Giants Sunday-afternoon games other than those that cannot be carried on the station because the New England Patriots are playing a home game at the same time. Providence's WNAC carries Fox's Giants' games unless Fox is broadcasting a Patriots' home game at the same time the Giants are playing.
Since 1995, the San Francisco 49ers have had most of California from the Oregon-California border south to Los Angeles as an unofficial secondary market, although the Los Angeles area is a secondary market for the San Diego Chargers. (Sacramento is an official secondary market to both the 49ers and the Raiders.)
An oddity of "temporary" secondary markets has occurred in Wisconsin due to a rooting interest in one particular player. After the 2007 season, quarterback Brett Favre departed the Green Bay Packers for the New York Jets. Thus, CBS affiliates WFRV in Green Bay (a former CBS O&O) and WDJT-TV in Milwaukee were able to ask for as many Jets games as CBS and the NFL could offer to their viewers. In 2009, when Favre moved to an NFC North division rival, the Minnesota Vikings, Fox affiliates WLUK-TV Green Bay and WITI Milwaukee requested as many Vikings games on their stations as possible. This also occurred in 2011 in Seattle where the market was able to broadcast Tennessee Titans games because former Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck started for the Titans and locally born and raised and former University of Washington QB Jake Locker was drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Titans. Given these two fan favorites the local CBS affiliate (KIRO-TV) requested to air as many of these games as possible.
In all other markets, the networks are the sole arbiters of the telecast matches. However, they usually make their decisions after consulting with all of their local affiliates. On rarer occasions, some affiliates are offered a choice of a few games for a given time-slot, if there is no game that stands out as appropriate. In those cases, some stations have allowed the viewers to vote online for their preferred game.
For example, during Week 3 of the 2010 season, viewers of Fox affiliate KMSS in Shreveport, Louisiana took part in an online vote where fans could choose between the Dallas Cowboys-Houston Texans game and the Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints game. The station is situated in the Ark-La-Tex region, where both the Saints and Cowboys have significant fan bases, due to the Shreveport market being situated on the northern border between Louisiana and Texas, including Texarkana, and the southwest corner of Arkansas. The poll concluded with viewers choosing the Falcons v. Saints game, even though Shreveport is closer to Dallas than New Orleans.
Networks, however, have the ability to override a station's request; WIVB-TV, for instance, requested a New England Patriots-Denver Broncos game in December 2011, due to the fact that the hometown Buffalo Bills faced both teams in the upcoming weeks and because of the high-profile showdown between Tim Tebow and Tom Brady; they instead received a New York Jets-Philadelphia Eagles game.