TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Today the National Football League gave hometown fans of the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions a chance to keep their teams on local television. The league said the two clubs can have extra time to sellout their stadiums. If they can, they’ll be able to avoid the NFL’s blackout rule.
For decades now the league hasn’t let local television stations carry hometown games if they are not sold out 72 hours in advance. The theory being folks would rather stay home and watch from the comfort of their own couches for free rather than shell out for tickets to the game. The NFL credits the blackout rule, in part, for football becoming the economic powerhouse it has. But I asked sportswriter Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine whether the current economy might make the league change its mind.
TIM KEOWN: Roger Goodell, the commissioner, says that ticket sales will drop only by single-digit percentage this year. That’s a pretty big drop because in years past it’s been just a couple of teams who have been affected by the blackout rule. And as of right now only 20 of the 32 teams have sold out for the season.
Ryssdal: You can’t really argue with success though. I mean, the sellout rate in the NFL over the past number of years is well above 90 percent, isn’t?
KEOWN: It is, and it’s hard to tell whether the blackout rule is a cause of that. But I’m sure it does have something to do with it. And the NFL had incredible success with ticket sales, and that’s why it is very newsworthy that this year they are struggling to sell tickets, and that they might be affected in terms of having a lot of teams not be on local television.
Ryssdal: Let me ask you this business model question. How much sense does it make to deny your product to your local consumers, because really that’s what’s happening.
KEOWN: That’s exactly what’s happening, Kai, and I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense in this economy. For one thing the NFL has become less of a local sport. It’s not uncommon for a kid in San Francisco to wear a Peyton Mannning jersey and be a fan of the Indianapolis Colts. I think if you’re trying to market your local players to the local fans, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to deny them access to the product. Because every game is essentially a three-and-a-half-hour commercial for your team.
Ryssdal: It’s probably worth mentioning that the NFL says outright that it has no plans to change this blackout rule.
KEOWN: No plans at all. And the only concession that they’ve made is that the teams that are blacked out, fans will have access to a tape or a recording of the game online beginning at midnight the day after the game. So Monday morning at midnight you can watch your Detroit Lions in front of your computer.
Ryssdal: Well, you mention the Lions. They went 0 and 16 last year, they’re going to have some trouble selling out. What other markets are likely to be affected?
KEOWN: You wouldn’t expect but the Arizona Cardinals were blacked out of their homeopener last week after making the Super Bowl last year. And they played the 49ers last Sunday afternoon, and it was not televised locally. And Jacksonville has pretty much said that none of their games will be sold out this year. The Oakland Raiders and the Saint Louis Rams are the other two teams that last year, along with the Lions, were subject to blackouts, but this year there could be as many as 10 to 12 teams.
Ryssdal: Put yourself inside the mind of Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, for a second here. Is his theory pretty much we wait this out for this season and then by next season the economy is OK, and it’s going to be back to business as usual.
KEOWN: I think that’s probably the fingers-crossed idea that they have. But it still seems like a one-year lifting of this blackout rule would have made some sense. It would have been sort of a goodwill gesture to the fans who have been so loyal to the product for some many years.
Ryssdal: Tim Keown. He’s a writer at ESPN The Magazine. Tim, thanks a lot.
KEOWN: Hey, thank you, Kai. I appreciate it.