TV Blackouts Backfire on Sports Leagues

Sports leagues in the U.S. use TV blackouts to force fans into the stands. But research shows local coverage actually increases game attendance.
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Driver Marco Andretti racing in the 2010 Indy 500 race. (Photo: carroteater/Shutterstock)

Driver Marco Andretti racing in the 2010 Indy 500 race. (Photo: carroteater/Shutterstock)

Last Sunday, 292 million households tuned in to watch the Indy 500—an automobile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—live on TV. But few, if any, of those households were in Indianapolis, the birthplace of the 500-mile competition dubbed “the greatest spectacle in racing.” This is nothing new: For more than six decades, there has been a live broadcast blackout of the race on local television stations.

The idea is to get fans off their couches and into the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—which seats upwards of 250,000 people—where they’ll spend money on tickets, drinks, snacks, and other merchandise. The Indy 500 is, of course, a costly event; tickets alone can cost hundreds of dollars. It's no surprise, then, that not everyone is happy about this arrangement.

"The blackout is all about business and attendance and butts in the seats, understood, but it's preposterous," Gregg Doyel wrote last week for IndyStar.com. "Because you’re funding this party."

This year marked the 99th running of the Indy 500 since the race began in 1911. Yet the contest hasn’t been broadcast on the city’s local TV stations since 1949.

Doyel reports that Indiana’s governor Mike Pence approved a $100 million loan to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013, which the state will keep doling out at $5 million a year until 2033. To be fair, the speedway and the Memorial Day race bring a lot of money into the region, but Doyel thinks one of the terms of the loan should have been allowing Indianapolitans to watch the race from the comfort of their own homes.

Racing is not the only sport to use broadcast blackouts to force fans to attend games. Until this year, the National Football League blocked local TV stations from broadcasting games with empty seats to try to boost ticket sales. (And similarly, many new stadiums are funded with public dollars.) According to the NFL, the blackout practice started in 1973, when many teams were dependent on ticket sales for revenue. But that rule's been relaxed in recent years. Previously only sold-out NFL games were aired locally, but in 2012 the rule was changed to broadcast even those games that have just 85 percent of the seats filled. The last straw for the league seems to have come in 2014, when the Federal Communication Commission pulled support for the rule, allowing cable and satellite companies to air blacked out games.

The NFL is now the only major sports league in the United States to broadcast the majority of its games on free television stations, according to Ars Technica, which may explain in part why football is the most popular sport in America: Research actually shows that TV broadcasts can increase game attendance. And while blackout policies are meant to increase revenues, as Forbes pointed out, the policy has done little to boost ticket prices for the Indy 500.

It seems the NFL is on the right track, and many hope that racing will follow suit. This year marked the 99th running of the Indy 500 since the race began in 1911. Yet the contest hasn’t been broadcast on the city’s local TV stations since 1949. Goyel and many of his fellow Indianapolitans are holding out hope that the 100th will bring some change—and some airtime.

*Special thanks to Ashley Ford for suggesting Indianapolis as a point of coverage.

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