Football fans in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Green Bay almost missed the chance to watch their teams compete in the NFL playoffs this weekend, thanks to the NFL's "blackout rule": When games don’t sell out at least three days in advance, they can’t be shown on local TV.
Forty years ago, when the Federal Communications Commission approved the rule, ticket sales were the NFL’s bread and butter. Protecting them from getting cannibalized by TV seemed reasonable. But times have changed. Just last month, the FCC gave notice that it wants to revoke that ruling.
Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago was one of nine economists who sent the FCC a memo saying, in effect, "Good on ya."
"If nobody showed up to an NFL game, and we just can Photoshop it in, so it looks like there are people, the NFL would lose a lot of revenue," he says. "But not the lion’s share, because that’s television."
Depending on how you slice it, Sanderson says TV accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the money in pro football.
And these are not cases of empty stadiums —just a few thousand tickets, so the amount teams would lose is a tiny fraction. In fact, sometimes the football team itself buys up unsold seats so the broadcast can go forward.
Another of the economists who signed the memo encouraging the FCC to end the blackout rule, the University of Maryland's Dennis Coates, says the real puzzle is why the NFL even enforces the rule anymore. Or why the league wants to keep it.
"Honestly, I don’t know why they defended it," he says. "It didn't make any sense to me, given that the evidence doesn’t show that it costs them anything."
Some Senators have leaned on the FCC to revoke the blackout rule, including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.
But Brown isn’t ready to pick a head-to-head fight—to yank the NFL’s anti-trust waivers over the blackout rule, as his colleagues John McCain and Richard Blumenthal have proposed.
Which prompts a question: Does this mean he thinks Congress is even less popular than NFL owners?
"You could march us down to mid-field and flip a coin," Brown says. "That’s probably a toss-up."
Leaving the ball—to mix sports metaphors—in the FCC’s court.