For the past two seasons, blackouts have become a way of life for the Buccaneers. Of their 15 regular-season games played at Raymond James Stadium during that time, 13 have not aired on local television.
But there's a grassroots movement here and around the country to eliminate an NFL rule that has been in place for nearly 40 years that states any game not sold out 72 hours before kickoff cannot be shown within a 75-mile radius of the stadium.
"There's no need for it,'' Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said. "It's time for this to end.''
Fasano recently filed a bill that would require Florida's three teams — Bucs, Dolphins and Jaguars — to televise all home games locally whether they're sold out or not. Fasano's bill would fine teams $125,000 for each game blacked out. Similar bills are being considered in other states.
Meanwhile, several fan advocacy groups made enough noise that the Federal Communications Commission agreed to take public comments on a proposal to end the blackout rule.
"We're asking the government to get out of the business of propping up sports blackouts," Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, which filed a petition with four other groups in November to end the blackout rule, told the New York Times.
"The FCC has had the rule since the 1970s and has never taken a comprehensive look at it."
At best, however, it would appear ending the blackout rule is a long shot. It seems unlikely any government agency can force a business to televise its product.
Before the rule was instituted in 1973, every home game was blacked out in the local market.
Once the rule was in place, about half of NFL games were blacked out in the 1970s and about 40 percent in the 1980s. That number has continued to dwindle.
This past season, just 16 games — fewer than one per week, or about 6 percent — were blacked out. The Bucs accounted for five of those blackouts, while the Bengals had six, Bills three and Chargers two.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the NFL said:
"The NFL is the only sports league that broadcasts all of its regular-season and playoff games on free television. … The policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV. Teams continue to work hard to sell tickets, including offering installment payment plans, group ticket sales and price flexibility.''
Fasano, however, says the NFL is making enough money through other outlets, especially television contracts and merchandising, it doesn't need the money generated through ticket sales. At the heart of Fasano's argument is the Florida-based teams use facilities that receive tax dollars. If fans paid for the stadiums, Fasano said, they should be able to watch the games played in them.
In the end, Fasano's plea appears more of a moral issue than a legal one.
"You would just like to see the owners of these teams step up to the plate and assure that there are no blackouts,'' Fasano said. "They are making millions upon millions of dollars.
"In Florida, they get monthly checks from the state for more than $160,000. I just want the owners to recognize the tough economic times people are going through and that they can't afford to go to games. So why not buy up the tickets and make sure we have no blackouts?''
Fasano said he is optimistic that the FCC is at least listening to arguments against the blackout rule and believes the groundswell could be enough to eventually end it.
"This backlash is not just here, but everywhere,'' Fasano said.
"No one but the NFL supports this rule. It's time for the NFL to listen to the fans and do the right thing.''
Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected]