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TV Blackouts Loom Over NFL, Come Close To Affecting Panthers

Fans tailgate before a Carolina Panthers game.

For the second straight year, the Carolina Panthers are 0-and-3. For fans who remember division titles and a Super Bowl run, it's been hard to watch the team struggle. But at least fans have been able to watch. That hasn't been the case everywhere. Last year 22 NFL games were blacked out in their local market. This year, four games have already been blacked out. And the Panthers nearly made it five for their home opener. Last week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals was sold out, but you couldn't tell. There were a lot of empty seats and before the game, the tailgating crowd was sparse. Among those who did show up were Larry Alderson and his friends from Wilmington. About a dozen guys - most of them in folding chairs - sipped iced-down Yeungling and Miller Lite. Alderson says some friends were missing. "We probably had 5 or 6 that just couldn't do it," Alderson says. "They just didn't have the money, weren't working as much. But they didn't make the trip with us." Just a block up Third Street, a scalper who says his name is John Black stands on a corner. Black says business is slow. Two weeks ago, he lost hundreds of dollars at the Panthers' home opener against Tampa Bay. "It was a flood of tickets," Black says. "It was so many tickets out here, I went home with like 8 tickets. I couldn't even give 'em away there was so many tickets out here." That game against the Buccaneers barely made it on local TV. To encourage ticket sales, the NFL prohibits local broadcasts of games that aren't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. Had there not been a sellout, it would've been the Panthers first blackout since 2002. League-wide, season ticket sales are down for the third straight year. Adding to the issue is that the average NFL ticket costs $76, which is 5 percent higher than last year. The NFL puts most of the blame on the economy. Brian McCarthy is a spokesman. "The NFL is not immune," McCarthy says. "Our fans are struggling. Our business partners are also struggling. And it's our challenge to add value, be creative and reach out and connect with our fans in many ways." McCarthy says the league is still very popular - as evidenced by record TV ratings. Affordable high definition TVs have made it easier to stay home and save money. But McCarthy says, compared to the past, the current blackout situation is not a big deal. Even 15 years ago, it was common for 30 percent of NFL games to get blacked out. But that was before the NFL became the sports empire it is today. That number got as low as 2 percent. Now, it's going the other way. Macky Weaver is an executive with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team had seven of eight home games blacked out last year. "Having the games on TV is important to developing your fan base," Weaver says. "I like to describe it is it's a 3 hour infomercial that promotes our product. And with that not on, it definitely hurts the ability to build the brand." The Jaguars are confident they've fixed their problems by reaching out to the city's business community to help sell more tickets. The Panthers raised ticket prices this year for the 8th time in 11 years. The team did not agree to an interview for this story. But the Panthers' woes affect more than the franchise. Jeff Arrowood is the program director at Fox Charlotte. "It's a major issue for us," he says. "The NFL games that we air are our most popular, our highest rated programs, our most profitable programs. If we are forced to blackout a game, we're gonna be letting down a lot of fans, a lot of viewers in town. And a lot of money will be left on the table for us." Arrowood says ad revenue lost from a blacked out game would total in the 6-figures. Restaurants and bars where fans gather to watch on TV would also suffer. Calls have gotten louder for the NFL to relax the blackout rule. Three weeks ago, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to change the blackout policy so fans could still see their favorite teams play. So, is NFL willing to budge? McCarthy - the league spokesman - says no. "The blackout policy has served the league very well for decades,' McCarthy says. "This goes back to the 1970s. We look at the blackout policy as not a short term fix but something that's benefited the league, and sold out stadiums for decades." In Charlotte, the Panthers have sold out 77 games in a row. But as the economy and the team continue to struggle that streak may be in danger. Three of the remaining six home games aren't sold out.