Vikings get their new stadium, but fans are still subjected to 'blackout' rule

Roger Chamberlain walked off the floor of the Minnesota state senate having just watched as taxpayers went on the hook for an estimated $1 billion (at least) over 30 years for the construction, upkeep and debt service on a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. He could only laugh in frustration.

"What the NFL wants," the republican state senator said, "the NFL gets."

The Vikings' franchise is staying in Minnesota, its home for the last 51 years. It's a big victory for the NFL and football fans in the area. The exorbitant cost is the reality of modern professional sports. Even a smaller market has to pay big or deal with the threat of relocation, in this case to Los Angeles.

Chamberlain is a football fan so on one level he's happy the Vikings are staying. He was disappointed, however, that what seemed like a reasonable amendment to the bill was squashed before it had a chance.

All Chamberlain wanted was to assure that since so much taxpayer money was being handed over, those same taxpayers would be guaranteed local broadcasts of all Viking games no matter if the stadium was sold out. In effect, he wanted to make the NFL's blackout rule illegal in Minnesota.

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"If we're going to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars, at least make sure the fans get to watch," he told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday. "I thought it was worth a shot. There was a lot bipartisan support."

Except that his amendment, which was initially approved in the face of strong opposition from the Vikings, got wiped out in committee before the final bill reached the Senate floor.

"At that point they weren't going to hang this up for a blackout amendment," Chamberlain said.

And so one of the worst provisions in sports continues, leaving a steamrolled state senator to join a long line of failed anti-blackout reformers – a list that includes Justice Department lawyers, television executives, economics professors, ideological lobbyists, all types of politicians, decades of frustrated fans and even the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon himself.

The NFL can continue, as always, to keep certain games off local television no matter how much public money went into a privately-owned stadium.

"Our understanding is that the amendment was eliminated by [a Senate] committee," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Thursday. "Therefore, we see no need to comment."

In practice the NFL blackout rule isn't a huge issue – in 2011 there were just 16 games (a mere six percent) held off local market airwaves. They all occurred in Buffalo, Cincinnati, San Diego and Tampa Bay. Minnesota hasn't had a blackout since 1997.

The principle is significant though.

The modern idea is that everyone gets to tune in for the game when enough of the locals pay the team to see it in person. The owners get their money from a few (70,000) and the many (millions) get the benefit, free TV.

With these billion-dollar stadiums needing so much public support, the dynamics change. Everyone is paying (or at least tax revenue that belongs to everyone is being used) to fund a stadium in which an already wealthy owner assumes the profits. Meanwhile only a select few (the ticket holders) get to enjoy the opulence of the facility.

So why shouldn't the common man get the guarantee of watching the game?

"What the NFL never accepts is that there are fans that want to stay home and watch the game and there are fans that want to go to the game to watch the game," said Brian Frederick of Sports Fan Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group that has lobbied the FCC on the blackout issue. "Those are different groups."

And in the era of government-financed stadiums, they are all "paying" fans.

Professional team owners attempt to cite economic impact and other positive studies in seeking public support for their stadiums, but most of those have been discredited. The biggest issue is displaced spending. Communities without NFL teams don't have higher savings rates. They just use their discretionary spending at other places around town (restaurants, shops, etc).

An NFL team may boost morale for a community, among other intangible benefits. In most cases there just isn't a legitimate economic case to be made. In this era of extreme public debt and huge budget shortfalls, the argument is even tougher.

"We oppose the way owners too easily manipulate the public into paying for this lavish stadium that only serves the earnings of the owner," Frederick said. "But if it's going to happen there should be certain caveats like no blackouts."

Sen. Chamberlain saw it the same way. With this much money going out, it seemed fair to get some concession from the Vikings.

In making his attempt, along with his counterpart in the House, Linda Runbeck, Chamberlain joined the rich history of the NFL's stubborn blackout rules. It began in the 1950s as a way, ostensibly, to protect the ticket-buying customer. Was it fair for the guy who paid for a seat to then have the game shown on television for free?

The Eisenhower Justice Department sued the NFL in 1953, but a judge ruled in the league's favor. The practice was made law in the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, part of which authorized local blackouts.

These days though, it's supposed to be about protecting the team's gate receipts. While broadcast rights are approximately 60 percent of NFL revenue, stadiums still produce around 20 percent of revenue, studies show.

In February, however, a group of leading sports economists and professors, including Roger Noll of Stanford and Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, published an independent position paper that concluded the blackout rule doesn't generate additional revenue for teams.

"Academic research supports the conclusion that local television blackouts have little or no effect on ticket sales or attendance for the game that is being televised," they wrote in the 23-page paper titled "The FCC's Sports Blackout Rules."

"Local blackouts of home games harm consumers without producing a significant financial benefit to teams," they concluded.

The NFL's entrenchment on the issue is deep. It always has been. It was into the 1970s that the blackout rules were so tight that even soldout home games were kept off local television.

That even includes playoff games. Yes, even packed to the gills playoff games.

It was of such concern that in 1972, the Department of Justice was on the case arguing that a modification of the rules was in "the public interest."

Avid football fan Richard Nixon was President. He was so upset at the idea that local fans couldn't at least watch the playoffs, in this case an upcoming Green Bay at Washington game, that he tried to make a deal with the NFL. Broadcast all sold out playoff games, he said, and he'd get the justice department and Congress off the league's back about the regular season.

Frederic Frommer of the Associated Press earlier this year unearthed a previously unreported Dec. 19. 1972 phone call from Nixon to Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. The call is on the presidential tapes that sit in the National Archives. It outlines the offer to then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

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"If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any – any – legislation to stop anything else," Nixon instructed Kleindienst to tell Rozelle. "I will fight it personally and veto any – any – legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we'll sustain the veto. … Go all out on it and tell him he's got the president's personal commitment."

Later Nixon vented like any good football fan.

"The folks should be able to see the goddamn games on television," Nixon said. "Playoff games. Playoffs, all playoff games should be available."

Naturally, Nixon also told Kleindienst that should the administration succeed in getting football on local airwaves he expected positive political publicity.

"If we can get the playoff games, believe me, it would be the greatest achievement we've ever done," Nixon said on the tape.


Except Rozelle declined. And sure enough, that offseason, here came Congress and a determined Nixon.

In 1973 the Sports Broadcasting Act was amended despite intense lobbying from the NFL. It now prohibited the league from blacking out any game that was sold out prior to 72 hours of kickoff. It was a far worse deal than the one Nixon originally offered.

Of course, the legislative loss was the NFL's gain. It turned out televising football actually increased the game's popularity and created a much larger market for ticket sales. Attendance soared and even as prices increased dramatically, blackouts decreased.

Getting NFL playoff games on local TV very well may be Nixon's greatest accomplishment. Other than opening up relations with China and assuring that every scandal big or small has to have the word "gate" attached to it, of course.

Nixon did accomplish a great deal. In hindsight he made one critical error: He didn't go far enough. It's the Sports Broadcasting Act that allows the current blackouts.

As a federal law, it also may block any state effort, although Chamberlain said his research showed such "permissive" language in the federal statute that the local law could survive the expected legal challenge from the NFL.

There will be no challenge though. "We had no leverage to get it in there," he conceded. Chamberlain may carry the same feelings as Nixon. Unfortunately he's a state senator from small towns in the exurbs of St. Paul, not the President of the United States.

"I hope at some point in the future," Chamberlain said, "that it will be addressed."

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Minnesota is going to get a new stadium. The Vikings are going to stay put. And the taxpayers are going to pay to build a state-of-the-art cash machine of a stadium for a billion-dollar organization that doesn't have to even guarantee the games will be on television.

That's just how the NFL works. That's just how the NFL has always worked.

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