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Robinson: NFL avoids near blackout embarrassment

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 4:12 p.m.

The thought of blacked-out playoff games must have been as chilling to the NFL as the game-time temperatures will be Sunday to those shivering at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

Green Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati received extensions beyond the usual 72-hour window in an effort to sell thousands of tickets for their home playoff games — an uncommon occurrence given no playoff game has been blacked out since 2002. By late Friday afternoon, all three cities sold out, albeit with the help of large supermarket chain purchases in Cincinnati and Indy and a banking chain's buy in Green Bay.

For the NFL, the embarrassment wouldn't have been just empty seats inside stadiums for important games. Blacking out even a single large TV market — especially Milwaukee, where the Packers game is expected to draw 1 million viewers — would have adversely affected network TV ratings, and ratings determine the how much networks can charge for ads.

There are numerous theories why the games took so long to sell out, the most common being that fans en masse are trading $160 game tickets for their 60-inch HDTVs. The games are so good in high definition, with multiple replays that aren't seen in stadiums, that it's tempting to give up the stadium experience (and the high-priced parking and drunken fans three seats away) for the family-room sofa.

In reality, there are myriad reasons, and not just ticket prices. Cincinnati ($86 and $96) and Indianapolis ($63), for example, sold tickets priced less than those for many concert acts.

In Green Bay, the threat of intolerable cold no doubt discouraged potential ticket buyers. With a predicted game-time temperature below zero and a possible wind chill of minus-20, it could be the third-coldest game in NFL history to the minus-13 for the Ice Bowl (the 1967 Cowboys-Packers NFC title game) and the minus-9 Freezer Bowl (the Chargers-Bengals 1981 season AFC title game).

But Packers management also deserves blame. It forced season-ticket holders to purchase seats for both potential Lambeau Field playoff games in advance — and at a time when Aaron Rodgers' injury made the Packers' participation doubtful.

A Packers fan whose two season tickets cost $880 said it would have cost him more than $1,100 after ticket-buying fees just to keep those seats for the playoffs. And the money would not have been refunded if there were no home playoff games but, rather, applied to 2014 seat costs.

That policy, even more than the weather, is being cited for 40,000 seats for a Packers playoff game suddenly becoming available.

The unpredictability of the NFL regular season also is an issue. The Packers and Bengals didn't know until last Sunday that they would host playoff games. The Packers won a win-or-out game in Chicago to get in. The Bengals still had a chance for a wild-card weekend bye until the Patriots won. This is an important factor in a market like Cincinnati, which draws fans from a relatively large region.

The NFL loves parity and down-to-the-wire playoff finishes, yet those all-important Week 17 games leave precious little time to sell tickets for a game being played in mere days.

But certainly the proliferation of big-screen HDTV sets played a role, too. Consider: Walmart sold an estimated 2 million HDTVs on Black Friday — and all those sets aren't being used just for gaming and watching “CSI” or “The Voice.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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