The Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to have it all hooked up.
Starting this season with a new coach and a new attitude, there was widespread hope new skipper Greg Schiano could remove the memory of the 10-game losing streak that closed last season.
Star defensive back Ronde Barber is making his 200th consecutive start Sunday, and the team reached out to Tampa Bay area fans for support, cutting ticket prices, adding payment plans for season tickets, providing free parking in some lots and adopting the league’s new 85 percent rule.
That rule allows the team to sidestep the NFL’s infamous “blackout rule,” permitting them to air their home games on local TV, as long as 85 percent of general admission tickets are sold, down from 100 percent (the catch: teams have to split revenue from the last 15 percent of tickets sold with the visiting team).
But the team had to announce Thursday that, despite all their efforts, fans watching local TV likely wouldn’t be able to watch their season opener Sunday, because they hadn’t even reached their lowered, 85 percent threshold on tickets sold – falling thousands short three days before the game.
There are likely lots of reasons why the Buccaneers are struggling to sell tickets: Florida, filled with transient residents from other places, is notorious for soft support of local sports teams; the Tampa Bay area is still recovering from hosting the Republican National Convention last week and in a time of recession, a flat screen TV and home theater system hooked to a satellite of cable TV sports package probably seems like a great alternative.
But I’m going to suggest another reason why the team and others like it may be floundering in attempts to get enough fans in stadiums to broadcast the games locally. And has everything to do with the blackout rule itself.
In today’s media world, conversation is currency. The effectiveness of political speeches is measured in how many Twitter messages they kick off per minute, and everyone from MTV and PBS to the local grocer is developing a serious social media profile to bring their business to consumers where they live.
Each media consumer has developed his or her own media ecology – a network of TV shows, radio programs, print products, web pages, Twitter feeds and other platforms they use to gather information every day. If you don’t penetrate that ecology, to that consumer you don’t exist.
The NFL has had the luxury of being such a pervasive element of American entertainment, they have never had to try hard to penetrate the basic media ecology of consumers – their eyes have always been on outlying groups, such as women and Hispanics – confident that their core audience would remain faithful and tuned in.
Many teams don’t even enable Wi-Fi access in their stadiums, preventing fans in the stands from taking conversation about the game to the world.
Still, the NFL has numbers in their favor. For the last two TV seasons, NFL games have emerged among the top television series on broadcast and the most-watched television programs ever, setting records for viewership at a time when most people’s attention is fragmented and spread over more media platforms than ever.
But I suggest that teams like the Buccaneers — struggling with long losing streaks, no big name stars earning recent attention, and questionable prospects in a serious rebuilding phase – have dropped out of the media ecology of many fans. And that process only gets worse by keeping them off local TV.
Current blackout rules ensure that only football fans already die-hard enough to purchase special viewing packages on premium TV services will actually see home games.
Such contests are prime opportunities to recruit new fans, giving the team a chance to play on its own turf, before an audience of devoted supporters, with an excitement level that just might convince people sitting at home that a trip to the football stadium could be a fun, special experience.
But that won’t happen if the Buccaneers can’t get on local TV.
So, odd as it sounds, I think Sunday’s blackout is an argument for letting teams set their own blackout threshold – at least for organizations which have a history of local TV blackouts (the Buccaneers saw five of seven home games blacked out last season and all eight home games blacked out the season before, according to the Tampa Bay Times newspaper).
A decent winning streak might accomplish the same goal, firing up talk about the team enough that people might decide to take in the games again.
But at a time when media distraction has never been higher, dropping out of some folks media ecology might be a permanent condition – unless the NFL acts to let struggling teams meet fans where they now live.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.