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“Blackout” is now a curse word to NFL management.
The desperation of the Redskins sales campaigns this offseason—advertisements on buses, open houses for upper-deck seats, mass ticket dumps of so-called “returns,” etc.—led me to joke online about D.C. becoming “the new Jacksonville.” Was Washington about to become a place where the home football team’s games were kept off local television under the rule that only sold out games may be broadcast?
I heard from Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie after one such post. He wasn’t chuckling. “There won’t be any blackouts,” Wyllie said. “That won’t happen here.”
He’s right: That won’t. The NFL’s definition of sellout has been gerrymandered to allow the Redskins and all other teams to exclude club seats, loge seats, suite seats, “Dream Seats,” standing-room spots and pretty much any ticket that isn’t sold when tallying sellouts for blackout purposes.
Yet, time was when the NFL, and all major U.S. sports leagues, kept all games off TV in the host market, on the logic that broadcasting games would dissuade people from buying tickets. Through the early 1970s, in fact, the NFL refused to broadcast sold-out RFK Stadium games locally. (Yes, kids, Redskins games used to sell out for real. Without bus ads! No, really!)
Commissioner Pete Rozelle, hailed as a visionary for most of his 30 seasons of running the NFL, long behaved as if the league’s life depended on keeping Skins home games off local TV. Rozelle warned that lifting the blackouts would cause so many folks to stay away from stadiums on game days that those who showed up would “hear just the chirp of pigeons and the crunch of peanuts.”
It actually took an act of Congress to compel Rozelle to lift the league-wide blackouts, which had forced Redskins fans to drive at least 75 miles from D.C. to watch a home game. Public Law 93-107 was debated in Congress in the summer of 1973 (alongside the Watergate hearings). The gist: Pro sports teams had to allow games to be broadcast. As a sop to owners, the rule allowed teams to keep the blackout in place if a game hadn’t sold out.
Rozelle had a few pro-blackout allies. U.S. Rep. James Collins, a Texas Republican, echoed Rozelle’s gloomy forecast. “This year the Washington Redskins are sold out,” Collins said at a hearing. “However, when the fans know that they can see the games at home next season, there will be a strong hesitancy to buy the season tickets, since the fans can stay at home and see the game at home, warm, and dry.”
Unfortunately for Rozelle, the blackout ban bill was proposed at a time when folks around here, including congressmen and senators and President Richard Nixon, really wanted to watch the Redskins on TV. George Allen had just taken the team to its first Super Bowl appearance, and D.C. was high on having a winning football team again after decades of losing.
“The reason the N.F.L. has the blackout rule is because of my success,” Allen told The New York Times in 1983. “The Senators and Congressmen couldn’t get tickets for the games, so they passed a law that the games had to be televised locally if you were sold out.”
Another D.C. sports fixture, Marty Aronoff, agrees. “Allen got this place crazy for the Redskins,” says Aronoff, a 35-year TV sports veteran now renowned as the most prolific stats man in the history of broadcasting (his current gigs include Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN, plus Maryland basketball). “And people who couldn’t get tickets wanted to be able to see the games on TV.”
Aronoff was a civil servant with the Bureau of Standards, and a Redskins season ticket holder, during the blackout debate. He was written up in The Washington Post sports page at the time for taking up the plight of less fortunate Skins fans in letters to Rozelle urging him to give the people what they want.
“In D.C., about 14,000 people hold the 53,000 seats,” Aronoff wrote to Rozelle. “[T]he NFL would like to deny the city’s residents the chance to see half of the team’s games, even though they are played in a taxpayer supported stadium.”
Some observers of the blackout debate say the NFL never recovered from its director of broadcast operations, Bob Cochran, pooh-poohing Rozelle’s foes during an interview with the Post: “There are too many spoiled people who think they’re owed everything that’s available,” Cochran told the Post. “We don’t owe anybody anything.”
A lot of folks in Congress felt the NFL owed quite a bit. Massachusetts Democrat Torbert McDonald, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, was among those who begged to differ with Cochran. “Congress allowed pro football an antitrust exemption [in 1961] and it’s time they paid their dues,” McDonald said during the debate.
Rep. Harley Staggers, a West Virginia Democrat, concurred. “I do not see why the people who pay the taxes to build these stadiums should not have an opportunity to see what they paid for and the sold out games which are played inside the stadium,” Staggers said.
In September 1973, the U.S. House voted 336-37 to ban blackouts of sold-out games through the 1975 season. “The last thing to pass this body so quickly was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution,” U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, a New York Republican, told Sports Illustrated after the vote.
The Senate came in with an anti-blackout bill less than a half hour after the House. Nixon, who took time out from fighting to save his job to voice support for ending the blackouts, signed the ban into law a day later.
But even after the bill’s passage, Rozelle and the NFL owners worked to keep games off TV. Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose, for example, added 376 field-level seats for a Redskins/Eagles game at Veterans Stadium in September 1973, just as the blackout ban went into effect. Tose thought nobody would buy seats with those sight lines. (Hey, aren’t those what Dan Snyder sells as “Dream Seats”?) And if they weren’t sold, the game wouldn’t be broadcast in Philly. Tose’s plan was thwarted when a local carpet vendor bought up all the lousy tickets and told Philly fans to watch the game on his dime.
In the 1974 season, the NFL made an effort to publicize the number of ticket buyers who didn’t actually attend games each week—the so-called “no-shows”—in hopes of swaying public opinion in favor of reinstating blackouts. A lot of attention was paid to a December game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Rams in Georgia, which brought in just 18,648 fans, after all 58,850 tickets were sold.
“I wonder if this telecast is going into Washington,” Rams general manager Don Klosterman huffed to the Post from a concourse in Atlanta during the game. “Now Congress can see how the antiblackout law is working.”
But a Federal Communications Commission study released months later proved that bad weather and a team’s record were “much more important influences” in determining the number of no-shows at NFL games than whether or not a game was broadcast locally. (Turns out that Atlanta/Rams game was played on a snowy, windy afternoon, with the host Falcons sporting a 2-12 record.) When Public Law 93-107 expired on Dec. 31, 1975, the NFL, perhaps swayed by the sentiment of fans like Aronoff, agreed to continue to abide by its rules on a voluntary basis in perpetuity. Judging by the watered-down definition of a “sellout,” the league realized over time that TV is not the enemy.
“The NFL has done pretty well with more television, hasn’t it?” says Aronoff. “And I have, too.”