By Sean Leahy, USA TODAY
The blackout blues will be back this season for some NFL fans.
At least 11 NFL teams could be facing TV blackouts in their home markets as the NFL fights through a downward trend in stadium attendance.
A confluence of issues - including a still-struggling economy, the quality of the viewing experience in fans' homes and sustained poor performance among some teams - have come together to keep some teams off local TV.
NFL rules require that games be blacked out in the home market if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. The league had 22 games (8.6% of the regular season) blacked out last year, a five-year high. And the forecast for the new season is already gloomy in many markets.
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"We're grappling with the attendance issue," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers spokesman Jonathan Grella, whose team may face its first blackout on Sunday in the opener against the Cleveland Browns. Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer said as far back as March that blackouts were a strong possibility as the team rebuilds following a 3-13 season.
TV blackouts are part of a long-standing NFL policy that commissioner Roger Goodell has consistently said is not up for reconsideration.
This season, Goodell said he's encouraged teams to get creative, even in a down economy, and offer value to fans.
"We worked hard last year knowing what our customers are going through," Goodell said. "I think the teams have done a terrific job on that.
"I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to hopefully improve that number (of 22 blackouts in 2009)."
Last year's blackouts were confined to five teams, all of which had losing records: the Jacksonville Jaguars (seven blackouts, seven wins); Detroit Lions (four blackouts, two wins); Kansas City Chiefs (one blackout, four wins); Oakland Raiders (seven blackouts, five wins); and St. Louis Rams (three blackouts, one win).
This season, the window for blackouts could include three 2009 playoff teams, the Arizona Cardinals, the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers.
Last year the Buccaneers took advantage of blackout loophole by which teams can buy back unsold tickets at a reduced rate in order for the game to air locally. This season, Grella said the team won't do that.
For games to be on TV, Grella said, "people need to understand that it's not a given."
In New York, both the Giants and Jets have encountered issues selling all of the season tickets they made available via personal seat licenses at the new Meadowlands stadium. But both teams have ruled out blackouts, and could take advantage of the buyback option if the need arose.
While the economy looms as a factor in all markets, the causes of TV blackout concerns vary from city to city. Cincinnati is a relatively small market. Arizona lost its star quarterback, Kurt Warner, to retirement and isn't projected to perform as well on the field. San Diego, while fielding a competitive team, also offers fans a myriad of other activities along the southern California coast.
"Some to the more challenging markets have been these good-weather markets," sports business analyst Marc Ganis said. "There are so many alternate things to do on weekends."
Poor performance is also a factor. The Detroit Lions have had nine blackouts over the past two seasons while winning a total of two games. The Kansas City Chiefs, in the midst of a 10-38 three-year stretch, had their first blackout since 1990 last year.
Some of the blackout-susceptible teams lack the established base built over decades in cities such as Pittsburgh and Chicago. In places such as Jacksonville and Arizona, where the population has swelled in recent decades, fans can be fickle with their support.
"That does not allow the roots of the teams to have taken hold as they have in other markets where teams have been for multiple generations," Ganis said.
But all teams are taking note of the potential problems concerning attendance, even as the league projects a drop off in ticket sales for the third consecutive year. As the technology for watching games at home has exploded with the advent of HD television and mobile content, Goodell has prioritized teams finding new innovations to lure fans out to the stadiums.
The Baltimore Ravens have sold out every game since moving from Cleveland in 1996, but team president Dick Cass said he doesn't expect fans will continue that streak merely out of loyalty to the team.
"It doesn't mean we'll be sold out two or three years from now," Cass said. "You have to work at that. It doesn't happen by happenstance."
Many fans complain that the blackout policy is unfair, especially in cities hard-hit by the recession. But Ganis said the policy "makes great sense" for the NFL as it seeks to drive fans into its stadiums.
"It creates home field advantage, creates great theater," Ganis said. "To offer an incentive not to buy tickets to the games would be counterproductive to the league's overall goals."
2010 NFL TV blackouts forecast: Survey of all 32 teams:
Arizona Cardinals: Can't rule out blackouts.
Atlanta Falcons: No blackouts expected.
Baltimore Ravens: Sold out all eight games.
Buffalo Bills: Have sold out three games. Can't rule out blackouts.
Carolina Panthers: Have sold out two games. Can't rule out blackouts.
Chicago Bears: No blackouts expected.
Cincinnati Bengals: Hoping to extend 53-game sellout streak but can't rule out blackouts.
Cleveland Browns: No blackouts expected.
Dallas Cowboys: No blackouts expected.
Denver Broncos: Sold out all eight games.
Detroit Lions: Did not respond to survey, but blackouts are possible. Had four blackouts last year and five in 2008.
Green Bay Packers: Sold out all eight games.
Houston Texans: No blackouts expected.
Indianapolis Colts: Sold out all eight games.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Optimistic first four games will sell out, but can't rule out blackouts. Had seven blackouts last year.
Kansas City Chiefs: Opener sold out and optimistic all eight games will be. Can't rule out blackouts. Had one blackout last year.
Miami Dolphins: No blackouts expected.
Minnesota Vikings: No blackouts expected.
New England Patriots : Sold out all eight games.
New Orleans Saints: Sold out all eight games.
New York Giants: No blackouts expected.
New York Jets: No blackouts expected.
Oakland Raiders: Did not respond to survey, but blackouts are possible. Had seven blackouts last year.
Philadelphia Eagles: Sold out all eight games.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Sold out all eight games.
St. Louis Rams: Blackouts possible. Had three blackouts last year, and team is hopeful it won't exceed that total this year.
San Diego Chargers: Can't rule out blackouts.
San Francisco 49ers: No blackouts expected
Seattle Seahawks: Did not respond to survey. No blackouts last year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Blackouts likely.
Tennessee Titans: Sold out all eight games.
Washington Redskins : Sold out all eight games.