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Is it time for the NFL to get into the weekly pay-per-view business?

On Saturday night you will be able to watch Doctor Who, who can travel into the future. You will not be able to watch Josh Freeman, who is expected to lead his team there.

Turn the channel and you can watch My Babysitter's a Vampire on the Disney Channel. You cannot watch the more urgent My Middle Linebacker is a Rookie.

Switch again and you can watch How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on Oxygen. However, you cannot watch Which Guys to Cut in Four Days.

And so it goes. Another Bucs game, another blackout, another group of fans being ticked off that other fans didn't buy enough tickets so everyone can watch the game on TV for free.

Well, here's a question:

How much do you hate the NFL blackout rule?

No, this is not a call for metaphors. I am not asking if you hate the blackout rule like you hate leftover cauliflower, or secondhand smoke, or bad drivers on the way home. I don't want to know the color of your rage or the degree of your disdain. I want to know the price.

Do you hate the blackout rule $30 worth?

Fifty dollars worth?

A hundred dollars worth?

In other words, what would you pay to make the blackout rule go away? What would you pay to get it waived so you could watch this game, or any game? Now that viewing a game from home has never been better, how much would it be worth to you to watch blacked-out games in the comfort of your living room, in front of your HD TV, in the middle of your surround sound? What would you pay so you didn't have to fight the traffic, pay for the parking and get your concessions from anyplace other than your refrigerator?

Are you ready for the NFL to get into the weekly pay-per-view business?

With every blackout, with every outcry from fans who can't see the game for free, the notion of pay-per-view grows less offensive. The Bucs have had a lot of football blacked out lately, and every time they do, fans howl.

And why not? For a long time, Bucs games were as free as the butterflies. You turned on the TV and there were Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp and the rest. If you were a 26-year-old Bucs fan at the end of the 2009 season, the team had been on network television for half of your life (261 straight games were broadcast). Fans expected games. They felt they were entitled to them.

Here in Blackout City, that hasn't been the case for a while. Last year the Bucs led the league in unshown moments locally. They were the only team to have all eight home games blacked out, and the only team with 10 wins to have any blacked out at all. If you remember 2009, when the Bucs owners bought out the tickets for several games and allowed them to be broadcast despite thousands of empty seats, you could argue the blackout rule matters more here than anywhere in the league.

This year? Bet on additional darkness.

Oh, you can shout all you want about the blackout rule. You can suggest that having last year's games blacked out didn't sell a lot of tickets for this year's. You can argue that, given the economy, perhaps 90 percent of a sellout should be enough for a league that plays in taxpayer-support stadiums. None of it will help.

Still, I understand blackouts. The NFL is a business. Why should it give its product away?

For instance, when Bruce Springsteen comes to town for a concert, it doesn't matter how quickly it sells out; that concert is not going to be on TV. And no one expects it to be. With the new Harry Potter movie out, it doesn't matter how packed the theater might be. It isn't going to be broadcast into homes until months later. And if McDonald's sells out on Thursday, it doesn't mean the burgers are free on Sunday.

So here is the first question: In an age of technology, when boxing and wrestling and college football games are broadcast on pay-per-view all the time, when consumers pay for movies on demand, would you pay to see a game that is otherwise blacked out?

And here's the second question: How much?

This is the key, isn't it? After protesting loudly, most people would consider paying a few bucks. But owners aren't going to alter the rule for a few bucks. That would just make the small crowds smaller, and the last thing NFL owners want is to give ticket-buyers a reason to stay home.

For the sake of discussion, what should the price of a pay-per-view game be? Let's see. StubHub has tickets for five of the Bucs' seven regular-season home games for less than $30. Should the charge be, say, $27?

Should it be the $35 or so some college fans pay for a one-time viewing? (Many packages are more affordable.) Just guessing, but given ticket prices, I'm betting the NFL owners would want more than most people would want to pay.

Should it be as much as $100, figuring people are going to gather in groups of four or more to watch?

Or should the NFL target sports bars instead of homes and charge several hundred dollars? Could the league get that much?

Or does the league merely shrug and tell fans to buy a darned ticket? Again, 26 of the 32 teams last year didn't have any blackouts, and 30 broadcast at least half of their home games. This isn't a problem in, say, Chicago or Green Bay or Denver.

Still, there are empty seats and interested fans. It seems there is a secondary market of people who want to see the game at an affordable price. Shouldn't the NFL be interested in making a little bit of money from them, too?

Here's an idea. Start slow. The NFL could try one pay-per-view game a year in the markets that had the most games blacked out. Make it a day it is particular advantageous to be in the stands (a big giveaway, a concert, etc.). Then use the broadcast to advertise your product on TV.

Why not?

After all, you can always make sure the DVR records Doctor Who.

Is it time for the NFL to get into the weekly pay-per-view business? 08/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 10:30pm]
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