The NFL Blues: Part 1
by John Delach
The big, bad monster of the entertainment /sports complex is in trouble. O.M.G. THE NFL IS IN TROUBLE! Now I know you are thinking, Roger Goodell and the league’s hierarchy have been considerably less than stellar in their investigation and adjudication of Ray Rice. While the violent aspects of the game especially concussions are putting the league under the glare of an unfriendly spotlight, such violence off the field has been caught in the same glare. It is not the happiest of times at the NFL. The commish is on his heals defending his actions, lawsuits abound forcing the League to dig a bit into their coffers. Not only that, but even the Redskins’ name is an issue.
But frankly that is not what is troubling Goodell & Co. at their well-appointed Park Avenue HQ. What has them nervous and looking over their shoulders is: attendance is declining. “Not possible!” you say. Well, Batman, you are wrong. So sayeth the Wall Street Journal. Quote the WSJ: “Average game attendance is down 4.5% since 2007, while broadcast and online viewer ship is soaring.”
“Down only 4.5%; HA!” you exclaim, “B.F.D.”
Did you know Bob and Ray, that teams are driving down their own fan base? “No,” well take my beloved New York Football Giants as Exhibit 1. To finance Met Life Stadium, a.k.a., the new joint, they instituted personal seat licenses (PSLs) to the tune of from $2,000 to $10,000 per seat depending on its location. They raised a boat load of money, but in the process, the waiting list of fans hoping to acquire season tickets went from a reputed 60,000 to 0.0. Wait, there’s more; there can never again be a waiting list for tickets as the Giants no longer control who owns these season tickets. Each PSL owner controls his or her ticket and he or she can sell the PSL to whomever they please at a price equal to what the traffic will bear. Oops, I believe this is what is called an unintended consequence of a deliberate act, this time teams issuing PSLs. The Giants may sellout most games at Met Life Stadium but they no longer enjoy a 100% season ticket fan base!
How bad is this attendance thing? The WSJ article reported that it has forced the NFL to amend its most sacred of sacred policies, the TV blackout. Once the blackout rule was impenetrable: THOU SHALL NOT BROADCAST ANY GAMES TO THE HOME TEAM’S AREA. This rule was so inflexible that in the early 1960s during the Giants’ glory years that starred Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford and the great defense led by Sam Huff, fans without tickets wishing to see the games scrambled to motels on eastern Long Island or central Connecticut to pick up the CBS broadcast coming out of Hartford. Even the sold-out1962 NFL Championship game was blacked out in the Metropolitan area.
It was the Giants who were instrumental for the league finally amending this policy. In 1972, at about the same time that the City of New York agreed to re-build Yankee Stadium, Wellington Mara, the Giants owner announced that the Maramen would be moving across the Hudson to a new stadium to be built in that New Jersey swamp euphemistically called The Meadowlands. But it would not be ready until 1976 and his honor, John V. Lindsay, in a hissy fit, not only kicked the Giants out of Yankee Stadium as soon as the 1973 baseball season ended, he banned them from playing in the City owned Shea Stadium. Like vagabonds, Big Blue sought a temporary facility and finally settled into that dump in New Haven otherwise known as the Yale Bowl. New Haven, as far away as it seems to be from the Big Apple, remained inside the NYC blackout zone and all “home” games would be banned for the entire Metropolitan area. But the Commissioner of the NFL, Alvin “Pete” Rozelle rendered a one-time special exemption allowing the broadcast to go forth thereby pleasing most fans although depriving salivating Long Island and Connecticut motel owners of their anticipated new-found weekend income.
But one fan was displeased. Richard Millhouse Nixon, the 37th President of the United States cried “Foul!” “No you don’t, Commissioner Rozelle, I’m president of all of the cities and states and if you can do this for New York, you can do it nationwide.”
Congress was ready to act, rumblings of anti-trust actions were heard so a deal was made and the new blackout rule went into effect: Television broadcasts could be shown in the home town team’s area so long as the game was sold out at least 72 hours in advance of the game.
And so peace reigned across the land and the airwaves for forty years from 1972 to 2012. But now the Journal’s piece noted that in recognition of the decline in attendance, this most sacred of rules has been gutted. Instead of a hard and fast rule, the home team now decides at what point enough seats have been sold to televise the game subject to a minimum number of 85% of the seats being sold. Now 85% seems like a high enough number, but it begs the question, “Is this a moving target, a number that will be adjusted downward as needed?”
The point of all of this is the need for the NFL to broadcast as many games as possible to as many places as possible to satisfy the TV gods. And why is this so? Simply put CBS, NBC, ESPN and Direct TV (not to mention the NFL Network) are contractually obligated to pay the league $27.9 billon between 2014 and 2022: Say “Hallelujah, television is good, television is great; all hail television!”
Hell, aside from Uncle’s spending habits twenty seven point nine billion dollars is a lot of money!
It is time to ask the musical question: “How in hell did the NFL coerce the networks to ante up such an insane price of admission?”
It began in the 1950s when Bert Bell, then the commissioner of the NFL, began the march into its modern era by signing the first league contracts to televise games on the Dumont Television Network. (Memo to Bob Sylvester: You know you’re (getting?) old if you can remember the Dumont Network.)
Football and television were a natural fit and the game blossomed in viewer ship with the playing of the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts a game the Colts won in overtime. Still referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” it gave the NFL Lift-off. From then on, the NFL was blessed with continued though modest growth in TV revenue until it truly blossomed with the merger of the NFL with the American Football League (AFL) and the creation of the greatest show on earth: THE SUPER BOWL.
(To be continued)