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A Brief History Of NFL Blackouts

NFL games on are on television everywhere these days... but it wasn't that many years ago that the NFL routinely blacked out home games.

black & white TV
black & white TV

In the first week of the NFL season, just concluded, if you lived in the Chicago area you could have watched all or part of seven of the 16 games played, presuming you had cable: the Thursday night Saints/Vikings opener; three Sunday afternoon games (Bears/Lions, Colts/Texans and Packers/Eagles); the Sunday night game (Cowboys/Redskins), and a doubleheader on Monday night (Ravens/Jets and Chargers/Chiefs).

Footballed out yet? Probably not; there are likely many of you who did exactly that from Thursday to Monday, and will do that whenever NFL games are played this year.

It wasn't that long ago, though, that NFL home games were completely blacked out and even the NFL championship game wasn't shown in the city in which it was played.

That's right, when the Bears won the NFL title in 1963, on December 29 at Wrigley Field 14-10 over the New York Giants, no one in Chicago could watch it on television -- except director of Wrigley Field park operations "Salty" Saltwell, who watched in his office because the CBS TV crew was nice enough to run a line from their truck to his TV set. Another 20,000 or so people watched the game in theaters, where "closed-circuit" showings were staged. I still remember my dad going onto the roof of our house -- in 10-degree weather -- to adjust the rooftop antenna (remember those? If you're under 30, you probably don't) so we could watch the game from a station in Milwaukee.

No one got to watch NFL home games in the 1960's -- they were blacked out within a 75-mile radius of the stadium to "protect" home attendance, even though baseball had long ago proven that televising games was the best way to create fans. Even the first seven Super Bowls weren't televised in the city where the game was being played, even though no team that played in any of those host cities was involved in the game. Granted, there were far more baseball home games than football home games -- only seven per year per NFL team in those days -- but blackouts of Bears games on Chicago TV stations in the 1960's sent fans to Milwaukee, Rockford and South Bend motels (all only a short distance outside the 75-mile range) to watch games on those cities' CBS stations (CBS had NFL, and later, NFC rights through 1993). Motels in those areas, particularly in South Bend, ran ads in Chicago newspapers promoting special Sunday rates for people to get rooms specifically to watch Bears games. (What else went on in those rooms is... well, perhaps best left unsaid.)

Even after the NFL-AFL merger was consummated in 1970, commissioner Pete Rozelle refused to lift local TV blackouts. As late as December 1972, Rozelle said, "We feel it is enough to bring the fan his seven road games for his home team and bring him other games when his team is at home," adding that "even the possibility that a game might be televised could hurt ticket sales."

Never mind that a Bears fan who lived within driving distance of Rockford, Milwaukee or South Bend, or in Chicago with a powerful rooftop antenna, could already watch Bears home games and not buy tickets.

The home blackouts were finally lifted in 1973 with the "72-hour rule", meaning that a game had to be sold out 72 hours in advance before the local blackout was lifted. This rule still exists, though it has been waived in special circumstances and has created on many occasions "buyouts" of remaining tickets by local media (often, the local station that would carry the game) in order to ensure a local telecast and high local TV ratings. Even so, one Bears game in 1973 was nearly blacked out -- and not because it wasn't sold out. On October 21, 1973 the Bears were scheduled to play the New England Patriots at Soldier Field. In those days NBC was the AFC's network and thus would have been the network carrying that game to the Chicago market. The game was sold out and so the blackout was lifted -- but in those days, most World Series baseball games were still played in the daytime. When the Oakland Athletics won Game Six on October 20, NBC was committed to carry Game Seven nationally the next afternoon.

Thus, suddenly, the Bears were left without a TV outlet in Chicago -- until WGN-TV stepped up and agreed to carry the Bears game locally. The Bears and Patriots were both bad teams then; both teams entered that Sunday with 1-4 records. The Patriots won the game 13-10, until this year the only Bears game carried on WGN-TV; WGN will be picking up the NFL Network's Bears/Dolphins telecast this season on Thursday, November 18.

Now, with multiple networks and cable channels carrying NFL games, and telecasts of Bears home games assured because of ticket sales, telecasts are now farmed out when games are scheduled for cable so as to assure local fans who aren't cable or satellite subscribers that they can see games on an over-the-air broadcast channel. Here is the TV schedule for the rest of the 2010 season, including a first-ever Bears telecast on WCIU-TV (it's the local station for ESPN's Sunday night Bears/Packers game):

9/19, at Cowboys: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 9/27, vs Packers: WCIU-Ch. 26, 7:30 pm 10/3, at Giants: WMAQ-Ch. 5, 7:20 pm 10/10, at Panthers: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 10/17, vs Seahawks: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 10/24, vs Redskins: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 11/7, vs Bills at Toronto: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 11/14, vs Vikings: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 11/18, at Dolphins: WGN-Ch. 9, 7:20 pm 11/28, vs Eagles: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 12/5, at Lions: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon 12/12, vs Patriots: WBBM-Ch. 2, noon 12/19, at Vikings: WLS-Ch. 7, 7:30 pm 12/26, vs Jets: WBBM-Ch. 2, noon 1/2/11, at Packers: WFLD-Ch. 32, noon

The days of NFL blackouts are long gone; professional football is a game well suited to television -- in some ways, better watched on a home plasma screen than in a stadium -- and the NFL has reaped billions of dollars by understanding that providing its product to as many people as possible has created millions of new fans. If only major league baseball would understand this; while the NFL rides a wave of popularity by televising half its games into virtually every market every weekend, baseball continues to resist changing arcane territorial blackout rules that date to the 1970's, when cable was in its infancy and most everyone had one of those rooftop antennas to bring in one of maybe five or six local stations, a few more if you had a powerful antenna.

So while you enjoy the banquet that is the NFL on television this year, just remember it wasn't that many years ago that the league starved its fans -- on purpose.