So the NFL has suspended its war on fans for a year, and that calls to mind an old but always dependable joke.
Q: What do you call 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?
A: A good start.
Or in this case: "What do you call suspending the NFL blackout rule for a year?" Same answer.
It is a good start, and if what's back of it is the threat of Congress stepping in to arbitrarily abolish it completely, then the libertarians are wrong. Turns out government can make our lives better sometimes.
Because, listen, the blackout rule is nothing but straight consumer blackmail, and it's time it vanished forever. And if the NFL won't do it voluntarily, the government should step in and do it for them. That prospect doubtless sends a cold shiver down spines in the NFL's boardrooms, because once you open that door, you open that door. And no one wants to do that, because they've got too cushy a deal going.
Take the blackout rule itself, for instance. It breeds nothing but ill will among fans, but that's a minor consideration for the NFL, which has grown beyond the need to stroke its fan base. Its real purpose is to protect lousy owners who, because of it, can continue to put an inferior product on the field at premium prices and get away with it.
It used to be a dependable axiom that you if you wanted your business to thrive, you threw the stick away and offered the carrot. The NFL has turned that on its head. The Shield's way of doing business is to shove a metaphorical gun in your face and tell you to pay up or else -- the "or else" being, "or else we won't let you watch your team."
Here's the thing about that: Most people out there, in a recovering but still sluggish economy, can't afford anything but the "or else." Thanks no doubt in part to the blackout rule, which helps keep ticket prices artificially high, it cost a family of four an average of $641 to attend a 49ers game last year. That was the highest in the league, but it was still a representative number.
The Cowboys, for instance, charge $75 just to park at the Jerry Dome. The Patriots' cheapest non-premium ticket last year was $122, a number sure to go up now after winning the Super Bowl. And the cheapest ticket in the league was $54, which is what the Browns were asking last year.
That's still north of $200 for a family of four just to get in the building. Not that the NFL minds. The league's too busy counting its pile and pushing around all the Joe Fans who have historically been the game's lifeblood. It's a shameful display of naked greed from a corporate enterprise that's become so bulletproof it really doesn't have to care how it looks anymore.
And yet the eternal verities, as they say, remain.
You want more fans to come to the games?
Get your hands out of their wallets and give them back their game. And quit clinging to the threadbare fable that if you give fans the games on TV, it'll hurt your gate.
That old saw goes back almost a century, to the days when baseball owners were opposed to this newfangled thing called radio for the same reason. The opposite, of course, turned out to be true; radio actually filled the ballparks by broadening the fan base.
Same deal with TV some 90 years later.
That the NFL secretly knows this was exposed by its decision to suspend the blackout rule. And that made the league look even more cynical than it already did.
The only cure for that?
Get rid of it altogether.