Benner/Sports and Colts and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: NFL TV blackouts aren't our problem ... for now

September 11, 2010

As America’s most popular professional sport begins a new season, funny, isn’t it, to read about the number of National Football League teams facing the possibility of local television blackouts?

According to published reports, 11 of 32 teams could be forced to keep at least some home games off the local airwaves. NFL rules prohibit the telecasts if games aren’t sold out at least 72 hours in advance of kickoff.

Last season, 22 games were blacked out. It’s the highest number in five years.

Three factors are cited: the economy and bad teams. And, in the age of big-screen, high-definition TVs, the ability to have a viewing experience at home superior to the one that can be had in the stadium.

In Indianapolis, we shrug our collective shoulders and ask why we should care. This is someone else’s problem. The Colts are an automatic sellout with a long waiting list for season tickets. The presence of Peyton Manning, a roster full of stars, and seven straight 12-wins-or-more seasons guarantee recession-proof box-office success.

And let’s give the Colts’ front office credit. They have not taken that success for granted, marketing and promoting the team both locally and regionally like there’s no tomorrow even though, of course, there eventually will be a tomorrow that doesn’t include Manning.

Just like there was a yesterday that didn’t include Manning. Remember the dog days of the 1990s when—except for one magical postseason run led by Captain Comeback, Jim Harbaugh—the Colts struggled to sell out what was then the NFL’s smallest venue, the 56,000-seat RCA Dome?

Ray Compton recalls those days well. The former sportswriter at The Indianapolis News first had been hired to fill seats in Market Square Arena for the Indiana Pacers in the early 1980s. He then made minor-league hockey successful with the Checkers and the Ice. Finally, in 1997, the Colts tapped Compton’s marketing talents to fill the Dome and get local games on television.

“We had a big scoreboard in the office and every time someone sold a couple of tickets, the number [toward a sellout] would go down,” said Compton, who left the Colts in 2005 to start his own event marketing and promotions firm, Compton Strategies.

“Getting your game on TV is imperative. The whole staff was committed to selling out, calling everyone they knew. It was a rallying cry not only in our office but on the street. It was a good message 12 to 15 years ago. But now I don’t think people want to hear it. They’re more worried about their pocketbooks than getting a game on TV.”

That’s not to say the past has to become the prologue. It’s entirely possible that Bill Polian and his successor-in-waiting, son Chris, can continue to hit the draft lottery and uncover hidden free-agent gems. Maybe Manning will continue to be, well, Manning for a far longer stretch than anyone can imagine, extending his career and excellence into his 40s, a la another quarterback named Brett Favre.

And maybe Indy has become enough of a football town to endure a downturn in on-field performance.

“There are no guarantees,” Compton said. “The Colts have done a lot of things to protect themselves, but 65,000 seats are still a lot of seats. And even if the economy turns around, when does sports, both professional and college, cross over to the point where it simply doesn’t make economic sense to be in the stadium? They’re asking people to put down a lot of money for tickets. You have to wonder what it’s going to be like the next 10 years and if there is a day of reckoning coming.”

Whether that day is, indeed, coming could be directly related to the expiring collective bargaining agreement. Certainly, the rhetoric will grow increasingly antagonistic as the league and the players’ union battle for public opinion.

Then again, as they’re facing down each other in their high-stakes poker game, do they really care what the public thinks?

Here is one guarantee: At the end of the day, when the smoke-filled room has cleared and an agreement has been reached, the price of NFL football will be going up.

In some markets, it might not matter. Indianapolis, for now, is one of those.

For now.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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