AP Enterprise: NFL nixed Nixon bid on TV blackouts

The NFL, which is trying to maintain its TV blackout of home

games that don’t sell out, missed an opportunity 40 years ago to

preserve an even more restrictive policy when it rebuffed an effort

by President Richard Nixon to lift the hometown blackout just for

playoff games.

On a previously unreported tape recording, now in the National

Archives, Nixon told his attorney general to offer the league a

deal: Allow playoff games to be televised in the hometown city, and

the president would block any legislation requiring regular-season

home games to be televised as well. At the time, the NFL blacked

out all home games, whether they were sellouts or not.

The president was a serious fan and in the early 1970s, he

shared the anger of Washington residents who couldn’t watch

Redskins games on TV, former aides recalled. The Redskins routinely

sold out and the NFL blackout policy left no way for Washington

fans without tickets to watch home games. In October 1972, Nixon’s

Justice Department had even told Congress it was time for some

modification of the blackout policy ”in the public interest.”

By December it was clear the NFL would black out that season’s

playoff games, including the first-round Redskins-Green Bay Packers

game in Washington.

In a Dec. 19, 1972, telephone call just days before that game,

Nixon told Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst to relay this

message to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle: ”If you make the move,

for these playoff games, we will block any – any – legislation to

stop anything else. I will fight it personally and veto any – any –

legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we’ll

sustain the veto. … Go all out on it and tell him he’s got the

president’s personal commitment. I’m for pro football all the way,

and I think it’s not in pro football’s interest to allow this to

build up because before you know it, they’ll have the damn Congress

go all the way. We don’t want Congress to go all the way.”

Nixon told his attorney general that the NFL ”should have

absolute protection on all regular-season games” and that ”if we

can get the playoff games, believe me, it would be the greatest

achievement we’ve ever done.”

As Kleindienst began to outline what he would tell Rozelle,

Nixon interrupted him.

”But let me say, that I want us to get some publicity out of

this,” the president said. ”I just don’t want to do this to

accomplish it.”

”I understand that,” Kleindienst responded. ”And that’s what

I’m going to tell him. That without putting your neck on the line

…”

”Oh, I don’t mind my neck on the line at all,” Nixon said.

”Now see if you can work that out and tell him this would be

the greatest move he could ever make,” Nixon said at the end of

the call. ”He’d be a hero to the nation.”

Incredibly, the next day Rozelle rebuffed the attorney

general.

News stories at the time reported that Rozelle declined

Kleindienst’s request to televise the upcoming playoff games, but

made no mention of Nixon’s offer to maintain the regular-season

blackouts in exchange. Kleindienst responded by announcing the

administration would ”seek legislation that is more in keeping

with the public interest.”

The league had predicted that broadcasting home games would hurt

attendance, and Rozelle repeated his oft-stated fear of pro

football becoming a ”studio show.” As Congress considered

legislation the following year to lift the blackout, Buffalo Bills

owner Ralph Wilson wrote Nixon on Aug. 2, 1973, that ”lifting of

the `blackout’ on sold-out games poses perhaps the most serious

threat to the over-all well-being of professional football that it

has faced in recent history.”

But Congress did pass legislation the following month preventing

blackouts of professional sports games that are sold out 72 hours

beforehand. Nixon signed it in time for the 1973 season.

NFL executive Joe Browne, a college intern under Rozelle in the

1960s and now senior adviser to the current commissioner, Roger

Goodell, said in an email to The Associated Press this past week

that Rozelle faced a ”pick-your-poison” choice.

”The reason the White House/DOJ deal did not pan out was that

Pete was more comfortable with what he was hearing from Congress,”

Browne wrote. Rozelle simply preferred lifting the blackout for

72-hour advance sellouts to the risk that postseason games might

end up with half-filled stadiums, Browne believes.

The blackout law has since expired, but the NFL agreed to make

it league policy.

The Federal Communications Commission passed a regulation in

1975 preventing cable systems from carrying a sporting event that

is blacked out on local broadcast television stations, effectively

reinforcing the NFL blackout policy. But the FCC is now considering

a petition by the Sports Fans Coalition to rescind this rule, which

would seriously dent the league’s blackout policy, although it

wouldn’t affect viewers who don’t subscribe to cable or

satellite.

At his news conference before the Super Bowl, Goodell noted that

the league had only 16 blackouts in 2011 and said the goal is zero.

The commissioner said the NFL has to balance making games available

on free TV with encouraging fans to come to the stadium.

”The policy has served us very well over four-plus decades,”

he said.

The number of blackouts has decreased steadily over the years:

50 percent of games in the 1970s (after the 1973 law), 40 percent

in the 1980s, 31 percent in the 1990s, and 8 percent in the 2000s.

Last season’s 6 percent was the fifth-lowest, according to the

NFL.

But some teams still have high numbers. The Cincinnati Bengals

had six of their eight home games blacked out last season, for

example, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were blacked out five

times.

”Blackouts may be down nationally, but tell that to the folks

in Tampa,” said Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports

Fans Coalition. ”By and large, the cities paid for these

stadiums.”

That group receives money from Verizon, which provides pay TV,

and has received funding from Time Warner Cable in the past. But

Frederick insisted the coalition ”driven by fans.”

In another previously unreported taped White House conversation

the week before the first 1972 playoff game, Nixon vented to

Kleindienst and White House aide John D. Ehrlichman about the game

not being televised locally.

”The folks should be able to see the goddam games on

television,” he said. ”Playoff games. Playoffs – all playoff

games should be available.

”Now, you might say this. You might also point out, and say

listen, just so you understand … the president is not speaking

for himself in this instance, because he’s going to be in Florida.

And he’s going to be watching the game in Florida – it’s going to

be carried there. But he’s speaking for all the people in

Washington that didn’t vote for him,” Nixon said to laughter. The

president had lost only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts

in his landslide 1972 victory over Democrat George McGovern.

”Put it right that way.”

Audio of President Nixon and his attorney general discussing a

deal to end NFL blackouts during playoffs: http://bit.ly/y6uMgQ

Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer