NFL alters blackout rules, may hurt ticket sales

It may be a bit much to call it a “game changer,” but a recent decision by the NFL does raise the eyebrows ever so slightly.

The league has decided that a sellout now means 85 percent of tickets sold — at least as it relates to a television blackout.

Instead of requiring all tickets be sold 72 hours prior to kickoff for a game to be televised locally, the league’s ownership has decided that 15 percent of the seats can be unsold. That is good for the guy sitting home who can’t afford a ticket, but might be concerning for the NFL as it assesses getting people out of recliners to watch games.

“Let’s face it, for years the NFL didn’t need a ticket sales department,” said Jim Kahler, executive director of the Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University. “They just picked up the phone and took orders.”

Any attendance study of the NFL is relative. The league drew more than 17 million fans last season and continues to be a television powerhouse.

But its stadiums are seeing more empty seats — epitomized by the two Ohio teams in 2011. Cleveland Browns Stadium was barely half-filled for some home games, and in Cincinnati the Bengals offered a two-for-one ticket deal in the season finale as the team played for a playoff spot.

The Wall Street Journal reported that attendance at games is down 4.5 percent from five years ago, and teams now are offering new and unique deals.

This could be merely a sign of tough times, but for a league that wants to grow and squeeze every penny of revenue possible out of the consumers, it might be reason to pause.

In 2011, the Bengals filled Paul Brown Stadium to 75.2 percent capacity for their eight home games, down from 92.1 percent in 2010.

In Cleveland, the Browns were at 90 percent capacity, but that number was clearly the definition of “tickets sold” because actual people in seats was far lower.

It’s why teams are offering deals that in the past were unheard of — like the Browns and Indians partnering for single-game suites and the Browns offering three-game ticket packages (starting at $99 and available on the website today). The Bengals’ two-for-one offer sold out the finale, but the shaky reality was the team needed it.

“That’s a sport that’s been hit the hardest by what I call ‘Joe Six Pack’ folks,” Kahler said. “Those folks could afford the season tickets because it was just a multiplier of 10 (games). Because of the number of games in basketball and baseball, the cost was higher. When ‘Joe Six Pack’ starts losing his job, the NFL is going to get hit the hardest.”

It  means he will watch his games in his family room.

“Look at what’s happened in the economy,” Kahler said. “The season ticket holder for many years loses his job. He and his wife say he’s not doing that (buy season tickets) anymore. The guy takes a year or two off, gets comfy with his man cave. Face it, man caves for guys in our age brackets are in. He’s got his recliner and big screen TV and the fridge is full and his friends are over.

“It probably is a better experience (than the stadium).”

Ohio attendance could be a reflection of the cities’ cultures — the Reds draw in Cincinnati, but the Indians don’t in Cleveland.

But the NFL is paying attention.

In addition to lowering the “blackout” threshold, the league has loosened limits on instigating crowd noise, and will show the same replays at the stadium that fans at home see. In addition, the team wants wireless internet in every stadium.

Kahler said years ago the NFL “was selling every seat they could because the demand was there.”

It’s still selling a ton of seats — 21 teams were at 95 percent of capacity or better, with nine at 100 percent or better and there were only 16 blackouts of 256 regular-season games in 2011 (in part due to teams and/or business buying tickets to avoid them). But seven were below 90 percent capacity — an optimal figure for the league — compared to three in 2008.

The league’s latest television deal is worth almost $28 billion through 2022 — but Kahler said the fastest-growing employment area in professional sports is in ticket sales, and the Journal reported that full season-ticket packages are available on the websites of 20 of the league’s 32 teams.

The website shows that the Browns have an opening for a season ticket sales account executive; they are one of five teams advertising for a hire less than two months before training camps open.

“When the 50-plus age group exits with their season tickets,” Kahler said, “teams suddenly are selling to a new generation that consumes sports in a different manner than you and I and everyone of our generation consumed it.”