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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jim Irsay's blackout gambit

Posted By on Tue, Jul 17, 2012 at 4:00 AM

There's no such thing as bad publicity, as Keith Richards likes to say

"There's no such thing as bad publicity," Keith Richards likes to say. Colts owner Jim Irsay, who counts one of Richards' guitars among his prize possessions, appears to have taken these words to heart. How else to explain the ripple of offseason theater Irsay treated Colts Nation to last week when he had his minions announce the team would blackout local TV coverage of home games unless they are sold out.

The odds are, of course, that by the time you read this, Irsay's threat will have produced its intended result: The Colts will be able to boast a sold-out season for the debut of their new-look team — and its Golden Boy quarterback, the felicitously named Andrew Luck; Colts home games will be televised after all and an unearthly quiet will, like one of great grandma's quilts, settle over Indianapolis neighborhoods on autumn Sunday afternoons.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

For years the National Football League enforced a television blackout rule that was as nasty as it was wrong-headed. If the home team did not attract a sell-out crowd, its game would not be locally televised. This idea conformed to a rather dim form of business logic that made television broadcasts a kind of community reward for selling tickets. If sales fell short, the community was punished.

But as years went by and the NFL turned into the corporate juggernaut it is today, it became clear that the real money wasn't in ticket sales, but television rights. Colts games are generally the highest-rated shows in the Indianapolis market, which should come as no surprise since the average cost of an NFL ticket, at about $75, is the highest in professional team sports.

At 75 bucks a pop, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must have realized his sport was on the brink of losing its carefully honed image as a populist spectacle in which all classes of fans (at least those with plenty of disposable income), outlandishly bedecked in rigorously licensed merchandise, might come together in braying exultation.

The steady stream of stories about players suffering from debilitating concussion-related injuries must also have weighed on Goodell. Given what we're finding out about the long-term consequences of head injuries, even the most football-crazy fan would have to be, well, crazy to encourage his or her kid to have their formative bell rung in what we quaintly used to call a "pee-wee" league.

Rather than risk losing the next generation of fans for his sport, Goodell decided to act. He rescinded the NFL's blackout rule, allowing games to be locally telecast even if ticket sales were only 85 percent of capacity. In so doing, Goodell, whether he knew it or not, struck a blow for abundance over scarcity — the idea that a thing's value actually increases the more it is shared.

How else, for example, to account for the legions of middle-aged Cubs fans? Prior to the cable-TV era, local Chicago station WGN televised every Cubs home baseball game. The team was famously lousy, but by beaming its games into every home in Chicagoland, Cubs management succeeded in building a practically unprecedented loyalty among the team's fans.

Hence football fans across America applauded Goodell's decision to largely separate the sharing of NFL games from ticket sales. And, by extension, it was no surprise that Indianapolis fans cried foul when Irsay announced his team would ignore Goodell's new policy and blackout Colts games anyway.

Unless, that is, ticket sales picked up.

The Colts appeared to take the negative reaction to their sudden embrace of fiscal austerity in stride. They said showing the games on TV wouldn't be fair to their paying customers, and that playing in front of a less than full house could handicap the team's millionaire athletes.

You'd think Irsay had spent his spring break perusing the Classic Comics version of the Republican budget dreamt up by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The one that would cut taxes on the rich and give old people coupons instead of Medicare.

What Irsay seemed to forget was that without all of us tax-paying, TV-watching folks, his team wouldn't have the problem of selling those extra seats in that big new stadium. The whole idea of using public money to finance a private enterprise like pro sports is based on the premise that, somehow, a pro team can become a community resource, which means it belongs to us on some level, whether we can afford to buy tickets for the games or not.

But the idea of what's public has been given short shrift lately, especially among the corporate-political class that would dismantle public services as being too costly to support. In this context, Irsay's threat to pull the plug on Colts broadcasts hits Hoosiers, with our lower-than-average household incomes, not just in the pocketbook, but in what's left of our pride. As a gambit to goose sales it may work. It also, unfortunately, reminds Colts Nation where it really lives: under Mr. Irsay's thumb.

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