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With attendance dropping, the NFL acts

By - Last modified: July 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Before fantasy football, before DirecTV, if it was a Sunday in the fall, your football access was only through network TV. You saw highlights from Brent Musberger or George Michael later in the day or the week. You read the box scores in the paper.

Thanks to the NFL’s blackout rules, if you wanted to guarantee you could see your team, and make something special of the day, you attended the game.

Box scores are now updated live right in your lap. You track your fantasy football players in real time. You have alerts set up so you can find scores and watch replays immediately. You watch the Redzone channel, which cares only about action and scoring. It’s on HDTV. You share the fan experience on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s never been harder for the NFL to attract fans to their games. The game day experience is a special one, for sure, but it hasn’t improved much since the advent of Jumbotrons. If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably said yourself that you prefer watching games at home.

NFL attendance is down 4.5 percent in the last five seasons. Declining attendance also meant the rising threat of blackouts.

Now, the NFL has taken action, softening their blackout rules as well as ramping up their game day experience, in an effort to bring fans back to the games.

Under the old system, teams that did not sell out available seats were faced with local fans being unable to watch their local team. With the fan bases of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, this was rarely an issue. But for smaller market or less successful teams, this was a big problem.

In Buffalo in the early 2000s, I would regularly hear warnings on the radio about blackouts of Bills games, only for McDonald’s or another large sponsor to negotiate a buyout of the remaining tickets and essentially allow the broadcast. Free or cheap tickets from businesses or charities were not hard to come by.

This week, the league softened its blackout rules to the point they will rarely come into play. Now, blackouts won’t occur until teams get as low as 85 percent of ticket sales. This move wasn’t about the fans — it was owners tired of buying out or giving away tickets to satisfy their fan bases.

To bring fans back to the games, the NFL is bringing new features to stadiums. The league plans on offering free wi-fi at every game, which fans will be able to use to view instant replays as at-home viewers do. Teams are discussing plans to allow fans to listen in on players wearing microphones. Stadiums are now mandated to have the NFL Redzone channel in the stadium, so fans can see scoring plays from across the league.

The league is even talking about letting fans listen to referees discussing calls on the field.

All of this is in an effort to give fans the best of game day possible. The NFL already has the richest TV contract, and now it wants its seat and suite money back. Until it can cut down on traffic, or prohibit me from watching the game while eating wings from a couch, this is great, but probably not enough for a long day at the game on Sunday.

Is this enough to get you back out to games?

See highlights from Brent Musberger in1978 and George Michael in 1986.

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