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The Games Will Be On

Television, that is; no thanks to the NFL or its partner in Washington.

10:45 AM, Jan 5, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The last of the unsold tickets to the playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers were bought up on Friday, mostly by Proctor and Gamble.  Call it a reverse corporate bailout.  If P&G had not come to the rescue, Bengals fans who live in Cincinnati and its environs would have been unable to watch their team on television. 

Wilson American football

This, of course, for the good of the game ...

Since the 70’s, the National Football League and the Federal Communications Commission have been colluding to blackout games that are not sold out as a way of incentivizing local fans to fill the stadium.  The money from ticket sales is important.  But not, perhaps, as important as the images of sold-out stadiums that are broadcast around the country and the world. 

The NFL, of course, is doing well enough that one might think it doesn’t need government to force people into the stands to watch the games.  Especially during the playoffs.  The enterprise consists, famously, of billionaire owners and millionaire players.  The Super Bowl is, of course, the most widely watched television show of the year and advertisers line up to pay $4 million or so for 30 second spots.  The recently fired coach of the Washington Redskins will be paid $7 million for doing nothing.  The teams can even afford to hire people to squirt water into the players’ open mouths between plays, lest they strain something doing it for themselves.

If it is that rich, why does the NFL continue to strong-arm fans into buying tickets to the games?  The answer, evidently, is … because it can.

Also because, increasingly, that is the way things are done in the post-capitalist American economy where some enterprises are too big to fail; bailouts have replaced bankruptcies; risks are socialized, while profits are not: and you ain’t nothing in business if you don’t have a big, expensive K Street outfit making your case in Congress and the regulatory agencies.  Market competition is for losers and little guys in the age of crony capitalism.  The NFL is no different when it comes to these things.

Consider, for instance, the fact that the stadium which Bengals fans were not inclined to fill on what promises to be a very cold Sunday in January was paid for with public money.  This was accompanied by all the usual promises.  The stadium would be a shot of adrenaline to the economy, a nucleus around which a prosperous new neighborhood of commerce would orbit, and a monument to civic pride.

Nice to think.  But the stadium, in reality, has been a sinkhole of debt for the city and Hamilton County, which came up with more than $500 million to build it nearly 20 years ago.  Annual expenses, to include debt service, are now more than $40 million. The promised development has been meager.  Other civic projects have been deferred, a hospital has been sold, and a property tax reduction rolled back … all to pay for that stadium.  It was, according to a Wall Street Journal story, “one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government—soaking up unprecedented tax dollars and county resources while returning little economic benefit.”

Note the phrasing.  One of the worst.  Other cities have been clipped by their NFL franchise (or another professional sports enterprise) but didn’t lose quite as much blood as Cincinnati.

And now, even the Bengals fans seem not to believe it was worth it.  They couldn’t be persuaded to fill the seats this weekend; some of them, no doubt, thinking they had already paid for them once, so why not watch on the big screen television in a warm living room?  But the NFL would not allow that.  So another corporation bailed out the franchise and its fans.

Washington, where this sort of thing qualifies as standard industry practice, has noticed and several senators have called for legislative relief.  The FCC has already voted unanimously to do away with the blackout rule.  This is called “a first step,” and only a certified “Washington insider,” could possibly know how many steps are still to be taken.  In Washington, “unanimous,”  doesn’t even buy you a Starbucks. 

So Senators McCain and Blumenthal are pushing for legislation that would eliminate the NFL’s anti-trust exemption when it comes to local blackouts.  The NFL, meanwhile, is standing its ground, with a mouthpiece asserting that, "The blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”

Of course. And unnecessary to add, perhaps, that McCain and Blumenthal and those FCC commissioners of the unanimous vote should not expect invitations to this year’s Super Bowl.  Which will be played in early February, in the New Jersey bogs, during what will be, if the gods are merciful, weather conditions similar to those in Cincinnati this weekend.

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