Sept. 13, 2009— -- The 2009 NFL season is barely under way, but it's already been filled with drama. Not by what's happening on the field, but by what's taking place in the stands.
In city after city, fans have been sweating it out, hoping the seats sell out so the games will not be blacked out on local television.
For years pro football has only known prosperity. But even the NFL cannot outrun the nation's worst economy in decades.
"People's incomes are down, and the teams are having difficulty selling all their tickets," says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.
Under the NFL's so-called blackout rule, a game that is not sold out within 72 hours of kickoff cannot be televised locally.
Last season, only three teams -- Oakland, Detroit and St. Louis -- did not sell out all their home games, and just nine of the NFL's 256 regular-season games were not broadcast locally.
But with the economy reeling, it is projected that as many as 12 of the NFL's 32 teams might not sell out all their home games this season. The NFL acknowledges that some 50 games might be blacked out locally, although it calls this a worst-case scenario.
No season-opener has been blacked out in five years, but last week the NFL had to give at least three teams -- Cincinnati, Oakland and Arizona -- an extra 24 hours to try to sell their remaining inventory of tickets in hopes their opening games would be shown locally.
In Cincinnati, a blackout was averted only after a supermarket chain and the local CBS affiliate stepped in and bought seats -- keeping alive a home sellout streak that dates to November 2003.
Arizona also managed to avoid a blackout, by unloading 1,700 tickets to meet the NFL's relaxed deadline. It was not immediately clear whether fans purchased those seats, or whether one or more local companies swooped in to buy them.
But unlike Oakland and Cincinnati, teams that struggled in 2008, disheartening their fans, Arizona enjoyed a magical season last year that culminated with an appearance in the Super Bowl.
"When the NFC champion is struggling to sell out, it sends a message to the rest of the league that any market, almost any market, can struggle," NFL analyst Adam Schefter of ESPN said.
In Jacksonville, where the Jaguars play their first home game next Sunday, fans already are bracing for the worst.
The region has been ravaged by the recession, and season-ticket sales have plummeted to 25,000, from 42,000 last year. A Jaguars official has said it is "very possible" than none of the Jaguars' eight home games will be broadcast to local fans.
With so many fans facing the prospect of being unable to tune in their home-town teams, the NFL is under growing pressure to relax its blackout rule.
Richard Crepeau, a professor at the University of Central Florida, said that with taxpayer subsidies supporting so many NFL stadiums, it is the right thing to do.
"It is time once again for Congressional action to curb the arrogance of the NFL," Crepeau wrote in an essay posted on poppolitics.com.
"A public that has been drained by tax subsidies for stadiums, often by extortion, and which continues to be milked by NFL owners, has an ownership right to the games played in those stadiums," he wrote.
Last week, the NFL announced that blacked out games will be shown online for free, although not until midnight. But league officials made clear the NFL will go no further.
"We are sensitive to what our fans and business partners are enduring in these tough economic times. Three-quarters of the clubs froze ticket prices this season and have created more flexibility and options for fans to help them afford tickets," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
There is, however, no discussion concerning changing the blackout policy, he said.
"The policy is important in supporting the ability of the clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as programming with large crowds so we can keep all our games on free TV," McCarthy said.
Zimbalist, the sports economist, said this is all posing a big dilemma for the league.
"The NFL has always been seen as a league that could not fail," and keeping the blackout rule helps to keep that image intact, he said.
At the same time, he said, "It's a league that wants to grow, and television is a powerful force that helps it to grow."