SYRACUSE -- For the first time in almost 40 years, the National Football League is relaxing its TV blackout policy. But Buffalo Bills fans in Syracuse and Utica won't notice anything different: the Bills announced today that they won't be exercising a new option to reduce the team's "blackout threshold."
Since 1973, the rule was simple: sell-out or blackout. If a particular game didn't completely sell out at least 72 hours in advance, the game would be blacked-out in all TV markets within 75 miles of the stadium. As you may have guessed, the rule is intended to drive ticket sales. But the rule has also been a source of frustration for Bills fans in Syracuse and Utica, cities that are subject to blackouts despite being more than 150 miles from Buffalo.
The cause for blackouts in Syracuse: TV signals from the market (according to the FCC) reach part of Yates and Ontario Counties, which are within the 75-mile blackout radius. From our understanding of NFL regulations, if the signal reaches anyplace within the radius, the entire market is included in the blackout zone.
The cause for blackouts in Utica: most Bills games are carried by CBS. Utica doesn't have its own CBS affiliate, so Syracuse's WTVH covers both markets. By contrast, the occasional Bills game on FOX could be blacked-out on Syracuse's WSYT but Utica's WFXV shouldn't be impacted. (We contacted a Buffalo Bills official today to make sure that's correct, but we did not receive a response.)
This year, the NFL is allowing teams the option to reduce the "blackout threshold" to as low as 85% of capacity. The trade-off: the NFL currently gets about 35% of ticket revenues. If a team lowers its blackout threshold, the NFL's take increases to 50% on any tickets sold above the threshold.
Today, the Buffalo Bills announced it would not lower its threshold. The team explained that giving the NFL a bigger cut of the action could wind up forcing the team to raise prices in order to maintain its own revenue levels. Knowing that higher prices could further impact ticket sales, it seems to be a prudent call. The team also explained that, out of the six games blacked-out since 2010, only one of them had enough seats sold to beat the 85% rule anyway.
When games are blacked out from broadcast TV, it can be a big benefit for radio affiliates, since radio is the only other way for fans to follow the game live, for free. Last month, Galaxy Communications announced TK99 (WTKW) in Syracuse and 96.9 WOUR in Utica will be taking over the Buffalo Bills Radio Network affiliations in their respective markets this season.
Galaxy CEO Ed Levine is aware that TV blackouts can increase listenership to his stations, but at the same time, he tells CNYRadio.com he hopes his stations can help prevent blackouts from happening in the first place:
"Part of the reason that the Bills wanted TK99 instead of some little, dinky AM is to increase the regional appeal of the franchise.
Through ticket giveaways,weekly on air appearances by Bills players and tailgate parties at the Stadium, we all believe that the Bills will increase attendance from this area quite dramatically over the next few years.... Potentially enough to end the TV blackout rules. In the meantime, being the only place to hear (or see) ALL Bills games doesn't suck for TK99!"
In Ithaca, Saga's Progressive Talk 1470 WNYY is the new radio home for the Bills this season. Bills fans in Tompkins County aren't necessarily subject to TV blackouts though: while Time Warner Cable carries Syracuse network affiliates on its basic tier there, the Ithaca digital cable lineup offers CBS programming by way of WENY-DT 36.2 from Elmira on channel 265. Elmira is outside of the 75-mile blackout zone.
Along with the Buffalo Bills, only three other teams experienced TV blackouts during the 2011 season. Like Buffalo, the San Diego Chargers are sticking with the original 100% rule. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have decided to drop to 85%. The Cincinnati Bengals, who led the NFL with six blackouts last season alone, haven't announced a decision yet.