This Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals will play host to the Baltimore Ravens in a “win and you’re in the playoffs” game. With such high stakes on the line, a casual fan in any other market would expect a sure sell-out. But this week the Bengals organization held a “Buy One-Get One” sale for season ticket holders to avoid another blackout of the game locally. This begs the question – are league wide ticket sales issues to blame on the fans or an archaic blackout policy?

The ticket drive worked and the Bengals announced yesterday they avoided what could have been their seventh blackout of their eight home games this year. Even though the Ravens game will be shown locally, Bengals fans have had to suffer through six home blackouts for a team on the verge of making the playoffs. They rank last in leaguewide attendance at just over 42,000 fans a game and fill Paul Brown Stadium to only 72% capacity, also last in the NFL. The Bengals’ issues have brought about an interesting debate on whether or not the NFL blackout policy that has been in place since 1973 should be changed.

Sherrod Brown, a Senator from Ohio, has stepped into the ring to take the blame away from the Cincy fans and put it squarely on the NFL as related in USA Today:

“The NFL’s blackout policy is unnecessary. The NFL is poised to earn record profits while the Cincinnati taxpayers who built the stadium will be watching reruns rather than touchdown runs. The rule is an outdated relic that doesn’t serve the NFL or the fan.”

But the NFL stuck back hard in their reply stating “The blackout policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV. Playing in full stadiums with thousands of fans is an important part of what makes NFL football an exciting and special entertainment event, both live and on television. We have a limited number of games and do not want to erode the incentive to buy tickets. Every market receives more than 100 NFL games on free TV every year, regardless of the blackout policy.”

Before the Blackout Rule of 1973 was in place, ALL local games were blacked out to encourage fans to attend the games live. And since the league has only had 16 games blacked out this year (through Week 16) compared to last year’s 26 total games blacked out, it makes sense that the league would stick to their guns on this policy.

So if Cincy has seen most of the blackouts this season, are the fans to blame? Or the ownership? Or a combination of numerous issues?

Cincinnati’s seems to have a combination of bad ownership coupled with the league-wide problem of attracting the finicky casual fan.

Mike Brown, the long time owner of the Bengals, is well known for being very cheap and was rumored to be the reason Pro Bowl QB Carson Palmer and WR Chad OchoCinco wanted out of Cincy. He’s not just one of the worst owners in the NFL, but in all pro sports. Take away your star power and casual fans lose interest and expect the team to lose.

While the Bengals did end up selling out Sunday’s game in order to lift the blackout, ticket sales live and die by winning.  

Win and win consistently and you don’t have to worry about ticket sales. Indianapolis didn’t have to worry about ticket sales prior to this year. Losing absolutely stinks and it emotionally takes a lot out of fans. I know first hand the emotional pain of going through one 4 win season, so the fact that the Cincy fans still show up to games after 15+ years of losing seasons is frankly astounding.  It’s going to take more than one winning season to undo all that misery.

So what’s the answer to ticket sales problems?

You must consistently attract the casual fan base. Period.

You will always have the die hard fans at every game, rain or shine. But when you have only had two double-digit winning seasons in the past twenty years, casual fans will not show up to a stadium to pay $70+ for a ticket, parking, expensive concessions, deal with traffic and then sit there and watch their team lose when they can watch it on a 46″ HD flat screen at the house for next to nothing. The home experience has become so nice that it’s getting harder to convince fans to show up at the stadium.

Teams must get innovative in ticket sales, have creative campaigns of why being at a live game matters, and start grass roots efforts similar to the Team Teal in Jacksonville (where the Jags haven’t had a blackout since 2009 in spite of rumors surrounding the franchise).

While Cincy has skirted a final home game from being blacked out to their local viewing audience, owners (as well as other teams) need to realize the importance of turning casual fans into die-hards that want to be at the stadium because the NFL blackout policy likely isn’t going anywhere. And the only way to do that is to build a winning team. Because in reality, creative marketing and ticket sales promotions only go so far if the team doesn’t win.