COMMENTARY: Cincinnati hands over lunch money to NFL bullies

Expert: Enforcing blackout like kick in the teeth

If you call his bluff, the bully might back down. Then again, you might get kicked in the teeth.

So went the NFL economics lesson I sought Thursday from Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan professor who thought it would be “nuts” for the league to impose a TV blackout for Sunday’s playoff game between the Bengals and San Diego Chargers.

But he also knew it was possible.

“I would be very surprised if the commissioner’s office were really prepared to enforce this,” said Szymanski, professor of sport management at Michigan’s School of Kinesiology. “It seems like this is a problem that shouldn’t in principal be that hard to solve. Pretty much everybody is better off if this game is shown on TV.”

Yet the Cincinnati Bengals struggled all week to sell the last 10,000 tickets for the Sunday’s playoff game at the 65,000-seat Paul Brown Stadium. The NFL expressed no interest in lifting its blackout restriction despite a call for it to do so by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.

“This is unacceptable at a time when the price of attending games continues to rise and the economy is not yet where it needs to be,” Brown said in a press release . “Fans, through local taxes, often help pay for the stadiums. They should be able to cheer on their local teams, especially during the playoffs.”

The NFL extended Thursday’s 1 p.m. deadline by 24 hours after several local companies coughed up cash for group-ticket buys. The Bengals won’t say how many tickets remain here.

Indianapolis and Green Bay also received deadline extensions from the league after failing to sell out by Thursday afternoon. Published reports indicate those teams had about 3,000 tickets left by Friday morning.

The Bengals were focused on making the best of a tough situation. Players politely asked for fan support. Bengals owner Mike Brown told WCPO’s Dennis Janson that he wants as many people as possible to share in the team’s success.

Cincinnati’s corporate community rallied around the cause. The Bengals announced group purchases by Fifth Third Bank, Cincinnati Insurance Company, Cintas, United Dairy Farmers, Liberty Mutual/Safeco and my employer, WCPO/Scripps. Restaurant owner Jeff Ruby bought 100 tickets Thursday, saying he would donate them to military families.

Sports marketing expert David Carter said companies can get a return from their ticket purchases if they have a “compelling marketing and public relations strategy” in place to capitalize on the goodwill that comes from being a good corporate citizen.

“When distributing tickets, business owners can compel (potential) customers to pick the tickets up at their place of business or otherwise tie the business to the available tickets via some form of promotion, including contests,” said Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

The Kroger Co. is doing exactly that with the "large quantiity" of tickets it purchased Friday. It's handing them out  - along with additional tickets purchased by Procter & Gamble Co. - to military personnel at a half-dozen Kroger stores in Cincinnati and Dayton.

The Cincinnati region stands to gain $14 million from hosting an NFL playoff game, according to Jeffrey Rexhausen, senior research associate at the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center.

So,in the end, it was all good, even if it was unnecessary and uncomfortable.

You have to wonder, what does the NFL really gain by selling 65,000 tickets instead of 55,000? Was $900,000 in extra ticket revenue really worth the public relations damage caused by threatening to withhold the game from fans who can’t afford a ticket? To Szymanski, the answer is clearly no, especially for a league that gets more and more revenue from national TV contracts.

“The fans are really becoming extras on a TV set,” he said. “There has been a steady upward shift in the percentage of revenue derived from TV. This is not just in an American phenomenon. It’s a global phenomenon as well. It happens with soccer in other parts of the world.”

Szymanski said the league has a legitimate interest in promoting a packed house.

"They want their franchises to be in locations where they have loyal fans who actually go to the games," he said, if only because it "makes that TV watching experience a great one."

That formula seems to be working, based on this Forbes report showing NFL games dominated primetime television ratings this year.

Szymanski thinks the league could just as easily fill stadiums with dynamic ticket pricing, the way airlines fill empty seats on jetliners. The Cincinnati Reds employed this strategy in 2013, maximizing revenue when demand for tickets was strong and filling empty seats with discount offers when ticket demand was low.

But instead of this approach, the NFL continues to cultivate a love-hate relationship with America’s cities, one that prompts taxpayers and business leaders to cater to the wishes of millionaire owners. It’s simple economics: supply and demand. There are

32 NFL teams and more than 32 towns that want one. Can’t deliver that new stadium? Los Angeles will be happy to make that deal.

“If the NFL is prepared to go through with this (blackout), that is sending a message about what they of think of Cincinnati as a home for the franchise,” Szymanski said. “It’s like a kick in the teeth. If they go through with it, you’d seriously have to question whether they are encouraging the idea that this franchise could move.”

Nobody made such a threat this week. They didn’t have to.

It’s an ever-present part of the dysfunctional relationship, like a bully holding out his hand for your lunch money.

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