Despite these assurances, it was easy to appreciate pro football's concern. The new law played havoc with hallowed NFL policy that views road-game telecasts as promotionally sound—the league insists that the networks beam every away game of all 26 teams back to the home folks—but considers home-game TV as a case of competing with your own product. Over the years, that policy helped fuel a demand so keen that season tickets are sometimes handed down in wills or contested in divorce suits. The lifting of the blackout suddenly had everybody talking about "no-shows," the term for those fickle souls who shelled out up to $15 for a single ticket only to stay away, presumably to watch the game on TV. For the 16 sellouts affected by the legislation during the season's first two weeks, the NFL counted 65,387 no-shows.
All those AWOLS meant a loss of revenue for parking and food concessions at stadiums, most of which are municipally owned. Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium also reported a disheartening 230 last-minute cancellations at its Allegheny Club, where members pay $600 a year for the privilege of watching Steeler games over Sunday dinner. Other losers include radio stations, which bought supposedly exclusive rights to home-game broadcasting only to have TV unexpectedly come along and siphon off the audience. Meanwhile, dire warnings that late-season foul weather might bring a sharp increase in no-shows were coming even from Miami Dolphin Owner Joe Robbie, who allowed that his club was vulnerable to tropical rainstorms, thus making what may be the first public admission that it rains in Miami.
The chief fear among Robbie and his fellow NFL owners was that today's no-show might become tomorrow's no-buy. Raising the specter of just such erosion, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle predicted that in the absence of TV blackouts, many sold-out games later this fall will be played before half-filled stadiums and that season ticket sales will drop sharply next year. "We mustn't let ourselves become just a TV-studio show," Rozelle said. "We need the electricity of the crowd. It isn't enough to sit in the stadium and hear just the chirp of pigeons and the crunch of peanuts."
Rozelle and the NFL owners hoped to persuade Congress to examine the effects of the blackout, even before the measure is due to be reviewed next April 15. Invoking the evils of home-game TV, they necessarily ignored the fact that thousands of Milwaukeeans have journeyed the 100 miles to Green Bay for years even though Packer home games have been televised in Milwaukee right along. There was also the inconvenient fact that there was a no-show problem with the blackout, at least in bad weather. Witness the 33,860 Kansas City ticket-holders who stayed away from a sold-out Chiefs game against Baltimore one blustery day last December. For all of 1972, the NFL's no shows totaled 624,686, or 3,427 per game. Although this year's rate is running higher, Rhode Island Democrat John Pastore, the anti-blackout champion in the Senate, cautioned last week that the figure may have been swollen by the price resistance that scalpers were known to be facing for games suddenly available on local TV.
It seemed the numbers game could be played in innumerable ways. When Kansas City turned up with 16,995 no-shows on opening day, a Chief front-office man blithely claimed that all those people had stayed away despite "ideal football weather." In fact, Kansas City had been pelted all morning by a chilling rain that let up before kickoff and then resumed in the fourth quarter. The club official spoke in the same spirit as the NFL witness who had earlier warned a congressional subcommittee that a hypothetical 10,000 no-shows at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could result in a loss at every Ram game of $6,600 in parking revenue—money, he testified, that helped subsidize the California Museum of Science and Industry. This particular argument against lifting the blackout might have been more persuasive except that the Rams, having had only a couple of advance sellouts in their 27-year history, are unlikely to suffer the inconvenience of home-game telecasts.
Also guilty of overreaching were those NFL boosters who viewed the anti-blackout legislation as an affront to free enterprise and rhetorically wondered whether Congress might next ask General Motors to give away cars after selling a certain number. The analogy ignored the fact that GM, unlike the NFL, does not turn away customers anxious to buy. Furthermore, pro football and other big-time sports have prospered by using public stadiums and taking advantage of tax depreciation laws. NFL owners have always regarded the two antitrust exemptions that Congress granted pro football as statesmanlike, but now Gerald Phipps, chairman of the board of the Denver Broncos, was crediting the same body with "the most stupid piece of legislation ever passed."
There is no doubt that Congress has greatly vexed the NFL. Radio stations, to take one example, are demanding renegotiation of NFL broadcasting rights they felt were now worth far less than the $3 million they had paid for them. The city of San Francisco, which leases Candlestick Park to the 49ers in a contract specifically prohibiting local TV, is threatening to sue. NFL clubs also face possible legal proceedings from fans who, having bought season tickets on the assumption that the games would not be shown on the tube, now feel a betrayal perhaps best expressed by the placard that somebody held aloft in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium reading, WELCOME TV FREELOADERS.
Unless they succeed in having the blackout restored, pro football's bosses will surely try to compensate for the damage done them by exacting greater tribute from the TV networks, whose ratings could be helped by their new access to home-game audiences. Rozelle also hints he might scrap his league's elaborate TV format, which provides for telecasts of all 13 weekly games, in favor of no more than four game-of-the-week shows patterned after ABC-TV's successful Monday-night extravaganza. That approach might yield less than the $45 million pro football annually receives from TV now, but it would also mean nine fewer weekly telecasts—and thus nine fewer chances of getting stuck with televised home games.
There is one last suspicion as to why the NFL owners are so aggrieved. Perhaps they had been saving home-game telecasts for the riches of some form of pay TV. Said Congressman Macdonald: "If these no-shows had been caused by pay TV, you could bet the NFL owners wouldn't be so upset."
After living with Public Law 93-107 a while longer, some fans may wind up agreeing with the owners that it was all a sorry mistake. Contrary to first impressions, the lifting of the blackout provides no additional football on TV. It merely substitutes the home team's game for a different one. Depending on the caliber of the home team, that may not always be a blessing, something that Gary Johnston, a Kansas City ski shop owner, soon realized when he stayed home from the Chiefs' televised game with Los Angeles. Not only did the bumbling Chiefs fail to lure him to the stadium, they could not even hold his attention on television. During the second half of a depressing 23-13 Kansas City loss, Johnston switched to the more exciting Oakland-Minnesota game on another channel.