Sports fans discuss blackouts like a fate worse than death. Like every time an infomercial plays on a Sunday afternoon instead of a football game, someone’s grandmother gets destroyed by evil pixies.

American sports fans hate their blackouts, but they are far from new. Before television brought sports leagues billions of dollars in annual revenue, the picture box was a scary thing that needed to be killed with fire. If you could watch sports on a magic box in your living room, why would you go to a game? Hence the blackout. Over the last few decades, technology and the ubiquity of live video has changed our lives. The blackout rules have stayed the same.

Blackouts are a relic of the sporting past, a once useful appendage that now only gets in the way of us being sports fans. Decades ago, before a user cracked the code, before satellite television and fantasy football, it was a well-implemented weapon used by owners to fill the seats.

Blackout restrictions today are mere obstacles, for fans and owners alike. If you try hard enough, you can get the games online. There are dozens and dozens of sites. Even if you can’t get video, the information will find its way to you. Football is everywhere, even in the offseason. Say what you will about the league’s oddly limited online offerings, but every other media outlet on the planet is more than ready to cover the wheels off football, 356 days a year. For owners, it merely makes them appear to be the bad guy when they don’t open the checkbook and buy up the remaining seats to avoid a Slap Chop Sunday.

Blackouts are archaic and simply do not fit the times we live in, and yet they remain. We are currently experiencing the death rattle of these rules, but it will almost certainly be a messy process. Politicians love to Defend the People with blackouts, but they almost always look silly doing it. Assuming a billion dollar entity will hit the kill switch on a rule that they believe is making them money is silly.

The FCC looking into blackout policies, however, has changed the game a bit. The league announced recently that it is changing its blackout policy to 85 percent capacity required to lift a market’s broadcast blackout.

The problem is the new blackout rules are not a simple lowering of the benchmark for tickets sold. There’s a catch, one that can cost teams a lot of money.

If this were a show teenagers watched in the 1990s, this is where I’d freeze everyone else on screen and break the fourth wall. It’s funny when people assume gigantic companies are brainless and do dumb things because they don’t know better. They are not. Make no mistake, preemptively “easing” the blackout rules is a stroke of genius by the National Football League. It puts the pressure on individual teams when it comes to blackouts. Each franchise has to make the decision to stay at 100 percent or risk losing potential revenue to save face publicly. Either way, it delays a real decision on killing blackouts altogether, possibly for another few years.

For some teams it was an easy decision to say yes. For others it is simply too big a risk to take. For gate-driven teams consistently at the bottom of the league in revenue and value, it didn’t make sense to do it.

You can frame the argument with civic pride and stadium development all you want. Yes, the Bills want public funds to renovate an antiquated stadium that was essentially obsolete the last time they renovated the stadium. Yes, it’s going to be a tire fire, but does this directly correlate with the team’s blackout policy?

For some fans, of course it does. Congressman Brian Higgins sure thinks so. Higgins, whom cites for his “amazing leadership” when it comes to fighting blackouts, has gotten particularly good at screaming WE’RE THE BEST into the yell-o-scope these days. He’s partnered with the Buffalo Fan Alliance, a group that hopes to “develop innovative solutions through public policy and community based concepts to protect the long term future of professional sports in Buffalo.”

It’s a nice and noble purpose, and so Higgins and Co. were breaking out the party favors when the league announced the changes to the blackout rules. Blinded by a small glimmer of apparant success, the resulting press release, complete with two spaces after each completed sentence, was downright jubilant.

“This is a game-changer for football enthusiasts in Buffalo and across the nation,” said Congressman Higgins. “Fans let their voices be heard and they certainly deserve this victory. “The momentum began when FCC Commissioners suggested the 36-year old rule deserved a ‘fresh look,’ grabbing the attention of the NFL. But it was the loyal and enthusiastic football followers who really drove this down the field.”

The fact that so many got the blackout policy wrong at first blush only shows you how effective the league’s tactics were. The blame now lies with each individual organization for not serving its fans, while the real villain in blackout polity — the NFL — scampers away with the suitcase full of cash.

Here’s Higgins’ response to the decision, puffing out his pride-filled chest and wiping a single tear from his eye as he wistfully glanced at the 12th Man sign on the Wall of Fame.

“Western New York is home to the most loyal fan base in the NFL and the decision by the Bills to continue the practice of blacking out the television screens of local fans is deeply disappointing.

“I have a great deal of respect for the Bills organization which operates a team this community loves and supports. The game day experience for the 12th Man at Ralph Wilson Stadium is something that can never be replicated at home and one we should continue to encourage and promote. However, it is fundamentally unfair and fiscally short-sighted to alienate the dedicated fans regardless of where they sit to cheer on our team.”

This is one of the stupidest opinions of the blackout policy I’ve ever read. A pound of hometown pride and hyperbole squashed into a tumbler with that stern, disappointed face your father used to give you when he heard what came out of the stereo in your room. The shortsightedness is all his own, a political grab at the moral high ground. How dare you wrong us, O Football Team, you who we cheer for 16 Sundays a year.

It’s not fair. That’s the message Higgins is delivering. While true, your mom’s mantra that “life is not fair” applies here. Most things are not in your favor in life. When you really think about it, blackouts are pretty far down the list of inequalities I’d like my politicians to rectify.

The rhetoric is interesting, though. This idea that we have a right to choose how we consume football is nothing new, but the fact is our technology has made this view this right inalienable is significant.

How we want to consume sports is entirely based in preference. Some prefer a narrow seat in the upper deck after a few hours barbecuing in the parking lot. They bemoan the packaged television that sports broadcasts have come to represent. The Apparatus, a term brilliantly coined by Brian Phillips in his Wimbledon coverage for Grantland, is a perspective to be overcome for some sports fans. Sports on television for many pales in comparison to the sights and sounds of a contest viewed not in pixels, but in person.

Strange how the game is turning to the pixels for saving, though. Let’s go back to that initial Wall Street Journal story about the NFL changing its blackout policy:

The league also is planning to introduce wireless Internet in every stadium and to create smartphone apps that could let fans listen to players wearing microphones on the field.

With declines in ticket sales each of the past five years, average game attendance is down 4.5% since 2007, while broadcast and online viewership is soaring. The NFL is worried that its couch-potato options—both on television and on mobile devices—have become good enough that many fans don’t see the point of attending an actual game.

“The at-home experience has gotten better and cheaper, while the in-stadium experience feels like it hasn’t,” said Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of ventures and business operations. “That’s a trend that we’ve got to do something about.”

All these years later and the same fears are governing the blackout policy of a billion dollar business. As senseless as the blackout rules may seem to fans that know the joys of foreign streaming video sites, the league is still afraid the game itself isn’t good enough to make them leave the house on Sundays. For some that may be true, but the veracity of their beliefs is neither here nor there anymore.

They won’t be convinced otherwise anytime soon, and considering those technological changes won’t come as quickly as they’d like, I wouldn’t expect any new developments anytime soon.

The point is this: When a major policy decision relies on the unpredictable preference of people, maintaining said policy’s status quo will be a large company’s first instinct. And so it’s a slow burn on blackouts, not the firestorm most fans would like. Civic pride and public funds for stadium renovations have nothing to do with what is being decided in New York City. The league is merely using its teams as lead blockers, with the Bills taking the brunt of the punishment.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    The one thing that frustrates me about the response of politicians (more the Senator) is how much pandering politicians pander to their constituents concerning the Bills and Sabres in order to score quick political points. All they have to do is make some sort of populist statement about keeping the Bills in Buffalo or lifting blackouts and you’ll have a million voters agreeing with you, even though you probably care not a whit about Western New York otherwise. Hey, it beats actually trying to make substantive change to bring more investment downtown right? And sports is a bipartisan issue that people care about too passionately in my opinion.
    As for the game experience itself, my Bills experience has been limited. But watching at home generally appeals to me more than peeing into a trough surrounded by cirrhotic Southern Ontarians. We have a way of developing our shared stadium misery into “mystique” and “an unforgettable fan experience” which makes going to a Bills game sound more like a fraternity hazing ritual. And I get that part of what makes Buffalo special is the distaste for the sanitized, glitzy stadiums that predominate elsewhere. But there’s a middle ground between a hole and the new Jets stadium.