NFL Blackouts:Bengals Face Deadline

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The first round of the NFL playoffs begins Saturday afternoon and, as of Thursday morning, only one of the weekend’s four games is a sellout. No sellout means the sobering prospect of TV blackouts in the teams’ local markets.

Three of the four teams face Thursday afternoon deadlines by which all tickets must be sold in order to avert blackouts. (A game must be sold out 72 hours before kickoff, although the league typically extends the deadline.) A playoff blackout, to say nothing of multiple blackouts, would be something of a black eye for the league, which hasn’t had one since the Jan. 10, 2002 wild-card game between the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens in Miami.

So far, only the Philadelphia Eagles’ home game against the New Orleans Saints is sold out. Games in Green Bay, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are not, with the biggest surprise, of course, being that home game in Green Bay. About 7,500 tickets remain for the Packers’ home game against the San Francisco 49ers at 4:40 p.m. (ET) Sunday, with a 4:40 p.m. ET deadline looming today. No doubt the Packers would request — and be given — an extension because, as Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press Gazette puts it, “the prospect of the Green Bay Packers not selling out a home game seems unthinkable.”

There are any number of logical reasons that the game has not sold out: the forecast calls for below-zero wind-chill temperatures at game time (which has never stopped Packers fans before), the Packers have the worst record (8-7-1) among playoff teams and the status of Aaron Rodgers was uncertain until a week ago. There also is, as Vandermause points out, a new, no-refund policy in which money paid will be applied to next year’s season tickets. Still, the prospect of no TV in Titletown is sobering. From Vandermause:

Is it possible that even the avid Packers fan base has reached a saturation point when it comes to following its favorite team?

In the past, the Packers could charge just about any price, whether for tickets, concessions or green and gold merchandise, and their loyal followers wouldn’t think twice about opening their wallets.

Packers devotees happily forked over millions of dollars for the right to be called team shareholders, even if in real terms they received only a valueless piece of paper.

That’s why the Packers’ struggle this week to sell out a playoff game comes as a shock and likely reverberates all the way to NFL headquarters.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals weren’t expecting their 1:05 p.m. home game Sunday against the San Diego Chargers to sell out and officials said Wednesday that they had 8,000 tickets left. But at least someone has offered to rescue them. Chad “Formerly Chad Ochocinco” Johnson, who played for the Bengals from 2001-10, tweeted:

The Bengals will decide this morning whether to ask for the 1 p.m. deadline to be extended. “As we’re seeing with the Colts and Packers, these wild-card games are notoriously difficult to sell, specially in small markets,” Jeff Berding, the team’s director of ticket sales and public affairs, told “The Green Bay situation is somewhat unique because they didn’t know until Sunday that they were hosting a playoff game, but we and Indianapolis have known for a couple weeks that we were going to host a game.”

Indianapolis, which kicks off the weekend with a 4:35 p.m. ET game Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs, was given an automatic 24-hour extension because of the New Year’s Day holiday and has about 5,500 tickets left.

This may all be resolved today. Although ticket prices are set by the league and teams can’t offer discounts, they do often work with their sponsors to buy up the tickets. And, one day soon, this may all be moot. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed doing away with blackouts in all pro sports.

“There is evidence that after nearly 40 years, the Sports Blackout Rule has outlived its relevance and utility,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in a statement. “Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games.”

Maybe the bigger reason is that the viewing experience at home is so much better. Time will tell if big-screen TVs are the enemy.

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