More than any other professional sports league in North America, the financial success of the National Football League depends heavily on revenues from television rights. Despite this dependence on TV revenues, the NFL also attempts to mitigate the effect of television on live attendance through the league’s blackout rule. Implemented in 1973, the “blackout” rule state that any game cannot be televised in a local market unless the game is sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. In some cases the rule is relaxed to 24 hours prior to kickoff, if a relatively small number of unsold tickets remain. Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the local market regardless of the number of tickets sold to the game. Interestingly, prior to Super Bowl VII the Super Bowl was blacked out in the host city. The blackout rule assumes that watching the game on TV and attending the game are close substitutes for consumers in the local market and that removing the possibility of watching the game on TV will lead to additional ticket sales.
The always interesting Mark Maske recapped recent NFL blackouts in an article in the Washington Post. At the beginning of the season, the league expressed concern that a large number of games, perhaps as many as 20%, would be blacked out this season due to lower tickets sales in the down economy. However, only 20 games have been blacked out this season, and an additional two games, in Oakland at St. Louis, could be blacked out on the last Sunday of the season. There are 256 regular season NFL games, so between 20/256 and 22/256 games (7.8% to 8.6% of the games) will be blacked out this season. There were 9 blackouts in 2008, 10 in 2007, 7 in 2006, and 12 in 2005, so 20 is a large increase. However, there were an average of 31 blackout games per season between 2000 and 2004. Blackouts were even more common in the last century: 30% of games were blacked out in the 1990s, 40% were blacked out in the 1980s, and half of all games played were blacked out in the 1970s. Population growth, and not the blackout policy, is likely responsible for the steady secular decline in the number of blackout games over the past 40 years.
National TV ratings were up 15% in 2009 compared to 2008. the league reported that average viewership in 2009 was 16.5 million per game, up from 14.4 million pre game in 2008. Both ESPN and the NFL Network set new viewing records in 2009. Watching football games on TV appears to be counter cyclical, probably because staying home and watching the NFL on TV is a relatively cheap activity, given the many games are broadcast on free-to-air network stations and most households own one or more television sets.