NFL Broadcasting Rules: The Legal reasons why we must endure watching the Cleveland Browns
The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum
I am a Dallas Cowboys fan. Wait, wait! Before you close your laptop–or even worse, for my NFC East contemporaries–bash your screen in with your fists, hear what I have to say first. I’m here to answer a question all NFL fans have wondered from time to time. Why do we as fans sometimes have to watch the woeful Kansas City Chiefs painfully toil to a meaningless 9-6 victory over the upstart–excuse me, I mean the no-start–lousy Jacksonville Jaguars, while other fans around the nation get to watch the explosive Robert Griffin III light it up versus his arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys? (Please, give me credit for my nonpartisanship; it was so hard for me to write a sentence praising a Washington Redskin!) Why can’t we see the game that even players on the Jacksonville and Kansas City sidelines would probably rather see themselves?
The answer is a complicated system of regulations set by the NFL and several factors that determine whether fans will see a game in a given market. The most important factor is where the media market is in relation to the team. For instance, each NFL club is designated a primary market (an area in close proximity to the stadium.) Most teams also have a secondary market, which can be of any size but are normally defined by a 75 miles radius of a home team’s stadium.
These factors are primarily responsible for determining whether fans see one game or another in conjunction with the complicated set of regulations. These regulations are as follows:
1) All away games are aired in their primary and secondary markets. This is because away games are thought to be too difficult for fans to travel and attend.
2) All sold out home games are aired in the primary markets. Games that don’t sell out are subjected to league imposed blackouts. A blackout bars the primary market from broadcasting the game. (This rarely happens due to club owners buying any remaining seats to prevent such stiff penalties.) Blackouts theoretically encourage fans to buy tickets rather than staying at home to watch games.
3) Affiliates select games with a team in their primary/secondary market, such as the FOX station in Sacramento opting to showcase the 49ers or a game of geographical interest, like the Raiders. When no primary or secondary market team is kicking off, the network broadcasts whatever national televised game is available.
4) An exception to this rule is when a local team’s game is being aired on either CBS or FOX. If that is happening, the other network cannot broadcast a game in that time slot. For instance, if the Dolphins are kicking off at 1 p.m. on CBS in the Miami market, then the Miami market FOX station cannot air any game in that timeslot.
5) Mid-game switches occur when there is a blow-out, a team winning by 18 points or more. Primary markets must show games, blow-outs included, in their entirety.
6) Since 2006, flex scheduling has been employed by the NFL at the start of week 11 of the season to ensure only teams with actual viable postseason aspirations are seen by the masses. The league must inform teams six days in advance if they are set to be “flexed.”
Whew! That was a mouthful. Basically, these rules dictate whether we see a well-timed Patriots’ Tom Brady to Wes Welker back-shoulder throw or a Chiefs’ Brady Quinn uncatchable dirtball to Dexter McCluster. (Who? My point exactly!) But why? Is there a good reason for these rules?
While teams have common interests such as promoting the NFL brand, they are still separate entities who compete with one another, not only on the playing field, but to attract fans, for gate receipts, and for contracts with managerial and playing personnel. The NFC East Dallas Cowboys, while recognizing that the AFC West San Diego Chargers solvency affects them, have their own concerns. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has an economic interest to showcase Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo to the Dallas media market even if the ‘Boys are having a down year and the Chargers seem to be having a Superbowl bound one. Jerry’s interests, and other NFL club owners alike, are so strong that he contracts with the NFL for their protection by ensuring that his team is shown exclusively in his primary market. Allowing Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan to pursue his independent economic interests, even when it makes us fans watch his dismal Jags, generates the monies needed to keep the 32-teamed machine that is the NFL going.
And boy, do they generate monies! These broadcasting rights have, in part, aided in the NFL becoming the most lucrative (approximately 3.1 billion dollars per year from broadcast licensing alone) professional sports league in the nation. Five national networks (CBS, FOX, ESPN, NBC and The NFL Network) all combine to produce and broadcast regular season games and postseason games. ESPN pays out around $1 billion per season, FOX $712.5 million, CBS $622.5 million, NBC $650 million and DirecTV spends $1 billion for NFL Sunday Ticket, which broadcasts games coast to coast regardless of affiliation coverage rights.
In sum, the sometimes unsavory taste the NFL leaves in its viewer’s mouths is needed. Truthfully, this bitter taste is quite rare. The reason these clashes of the suck-asses stand out so much is because we as fans have grown used to seeing the great parity the NFL offers. The occasional airing of games that aren’t the best the league has to offer is a necessary evil for the prosperity the league has enjoyed thus far. In other words, the failed Jake Locker center snaps of the world are needed if we are to enjoy the Eli Manning miracle heaves for game winners. Now we know why we see what we see on Sundays and it was brought to you by a… wait for it… Cowboys fan! (I guess we are good for something!)