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Tough economic times call for a more-reasonable NFL blackout policy

In the end, they did us a favor.

That’s the feeling I’ve heard from several football fans here in my corner of Florida, after the NFL blacked out Sunday’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers game that the team eventually lost in a near-blowout to the New Orleans Saints 31-6.

Didn’t have to be that way. The Bucs went into Sunday’s game with one of its best starts in years, boasting a 3-1 record, a team of young hopefuls and a significant opponent in defending Super Bowl champs the Saints.

But just as hometown fans were starting to feel their passions rise for a team that was pulling itself together before their eyes, the NFL’s blackout policy took away the view – shunting this crucial game off local TV screens because not enough people were paying good money to see an organization that has struggled for years.

So when I read reports that the NFL was assembling a nine-team group to take a look at the growing problem – already at twice the number of blackouts compared to last year, as the league insists on blocking TV coverage of any game that isn’t sold out – I was encouraged. Until I saw what they were looking at.

According to the Sports Business Journal, this task force is going to focus on “ticketing, the in-game experience, fan engagement and stadium operations” to try luring people back into the stadiums.

All interesting ideas, from the standpoint of a league convinced it has a great product that just needs to be marketed better. But I was wondering something else; where’s the task force looking at curbing unemployment, raising worker pay and curbing home foreclosures?

Because, from this sliver of the Sunshine State, I’m not at all surprised that a part of the country leading the nation in home foreclosures and unemployment is having a hard time coughing up cash to watch a team that had a 3-13 record last year try to do better.

Here’s my helpful suggestion, sure to be ignored by the NFL powers that be: A blackout policy informed by the current economic circumstances.

In other words, when unemployment, home prices or some other leading economic indicator reveals a serious problem, ease the blackout restrictions for that team.

I get the logic of the current policy, and it’s wrapped in the long-held sense of entitlement that every institution connected with professional sports displays when it comes to fan loyalty.

I saw it in ugly display when two players from our nearly world-champion Tampa Bay Rays baseball team criticized fans for not filling the stands when just 12,000 people showed for a September game which could have clinched a playoff berth for them.

David Price and Evan Longoria, two standout Rays players expected to earn more than $3 million next year, told sports writers they couldn’t understand why people weren’t filling the stands to watch their most-excellent play.

The team then went on to lose every home game in their playoff run — falling to the Texas Rangers in the ALDS before crowds of cheering fans who couldn’t understand why their team was tanking so badly when they finally started paying attention.

A bit of Karma, perhaps? Who am I to say?

The logic behind pressing a strict blackout policy makes sense mostly to the guys chomping on cigars in a backroom somewhere. If you give them the product for free, the thinking goes, why would they ever spend money to see it?

But pushing blackouts in economically struggling areas with inconsistent teams feels much more like punishing fans for circumstance and smart – if painful – financial decisions.

In good times, many sports fans bought high-definition televisions and bank-busting sound systems (the number of HDTV sets jumped 26 percent, while LCD flat screen TVs jumped 48 percent over the past two years, according to The Nielsen Company). Ratings for football games top the TV charts, with NBC’s Sunday Night Football earning better ratings for nighttime football than we’ve seen in more than a decade.

So the idea that fans might be staying home, with the home theater setups they’re still paying off, amid news of layoffs and ongoing recession, can’t seem far fetched. And the negative impact of seeing the league switch off TV access to a franchise which has already gobbled up hundreds of millions in tax breaks at a time when people are already making hard decisions about finances seems obvious.

This is a recipe for a damaging spiral; floundering team, equals community apathy, which brings more blackouts and more community indifference. Given that a Buccaneers’ spokesman has already told the press every home game might be blacked out, this doesn’t seem an unreasonable scenario.

Yes, the Jacksonville Jaguars, previously the NFL’s poster child for damaging blackouts, has somehow avoided them this season. But given that tickets have been available for games that somehow avoided a blackout, it’s tough to know exactly how they’re doing the math to stay on television.

I say it’s time for the NFL to give back to its communities beyond United Way fund drives and public service announcements. It’s time for some recognition of struggling economies. And it’s time for the NFL to take a little credit for helping people in tough times.

Think of it as the NFL’s own version of a stimulus package; one that can’t come too soon for fans of certain beleaguered teams. 

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.  

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