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NFL blackout rules under fire in down economy

TAMPA - One sellout may not constitute a marketing trend for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it would be a welcome start. It appears the 10-game home blackout streak of the Bucs will end with a full house expected for Monday night's nationally televised matchup against the Colts at Raymond James Stadium. "It would be nice,'' Bucs center Jeff Faine said of the anticipated sellout, which needs to become official by the weekend to avoid another TV blackout within a 75-mile radius of the stadium. "I'd love for more of our fans to experience first-hand what we've been able to put together here the past couple of years.'' Since the stadium opened in 1998, the Bucs had never experienced a home blackout until last season, when none of the eight regular-season games were televised in the local market.
This season's first two home games, against the Lions and Falcons, fell well short of sellouts, but by early this week, Bucs officials announced that fewer than 2,000 seats remained unsold for Monday night. "These are good fans hurt by a bad economy,'' said Fox television analyst Brian Billick, who worked Sunday's game against Atlanta. "I don't know this area well, but from what I hear, there are a lot of haves and a lot of have-nots. It's regrettable that coming to an NFL game is a pricey deal, but this is a good, young team. It's an exciting team. It's a team worth rooting for.'' But at what cost? "In general, prices are too high,'' said Bob Serra, a retired Bucs fan from St. Petersburg. "You're talking about $200 for a couple to go to a game, and that's a lot of money, especially for retirees. There are a lot of people around here who can't afford to come to games.'' Prior to 1973, all NFL games were prohibited from being televised in the home market – whether there was a sellout or not. According to the NFL's current policy, games must be sold out 72 hours before kickoff to avoid a local blackout. Clubs can request a 24-hour extension from the league if the game is close to selling out. "If Monday night's game doesn't sell out, it's the blackout's fault,'' said Jack Brennan, a 55-year-old resident of Plant City. "It's out of sight, out of mind. There are ways to create demand and ways to create apathy. I've been in sports marketing (golf) for 27 years. Can any sports franchise prove that local TV blackouts spur stadium ticket sales?'' In a conference call with Bucs season ticket-holders this summer, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is receptive to new ideas regarding its blackout stance. "We need to continue to look at it and make modifications,'' Goodell said, "whether they be in some of our policies with regard to discounting tickets or comp tickets. We'll continue to do that in a way that I think is responsive to the economic conditions that our fans are going through.'' Faine sees both sides of the thorny blackout issue. "The NFL is a business, and owners have a lot at risk if they don't fill the stadiums,'' he said. "There's a lot of money changing hands and a lot of people that need to be paid. Owners are going to have that overhead … even if it's not a full house. At the same time, we have a real estate-driven economy here that's been hit very hard. People are deciding between going to a football game and buying a book bag for their kid.'' While NFL attendance is on a downward trend, TV ratings are soaring as league officials look for new ways to enhance the in-house fan experience. Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for tickets, parking and concessions, pro football fans can enjoy games in high definition on big-screen televisions in the comfort of their recliners. "Having our fans out there in a packed house as our 12th man would mean a lot,'' Bucs safety Sean Jones said. "The more the merrier, we welcome everybody. Come see us get a win Monday night.'' Despite last week's disappointing turnstile count of 41,269, Bucs fans were saluted by Tampa Bay players for their loud support. "It was a nice, old-school vibe against Atlanta. Now, let's get 'em all loud again,'' coach Raheem Morris said. "I can see things changing all around town. People want to wear a (rookie middle linebacker) Mason Foster jersey or a (second-year receiver) Mike Williams jersey. "These things take time, the chemistry has to bond, but it's coming.''

ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833

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