Watch CBS News

The NFL Blackout Rule: A Brief Chicago History

By John Dodge

CHICAGO (CBS) -- When following the Bears in the 1970s, the pregame ritual often focused on whether there would actually be a game to watch, thanks to the NFL's "blackout" rule.

The FCC this week voted to end the NFL rule that allows for a blackout of the game in the home team's market if the game is not a sell out. That rule is rarely used these days--99 percent of NFL games last year were sold out. There were only two blackout games.

The FCC says the rule was outdated and unnecessary. It was established to prevent cable and satellite operators from airing sports events that were blacked out on local TV and to boost ticket sales.

"Today, television revenues have replaced ticket sales as the NFL's main source of revenue, and blackouts of NFL games are increasingly rare," the FCC said.

In the 1970s, the Bears were lousy. Sometimes, a company or a very wealthy person to buy up unsold tickets to guarantee the games would air. In mid 1970s, the average attendance at Solider Field was around 48,000-50,000 fans a game. Seating capacity then was around 57,000.

During the mid-1980s and most of the 1990s, the blackout rule was never an issue in Chicago.

In December 1998, then Tribune reporter Jim Kirk (now the Editor in Chief at the Sun-Times) wrote a story about how top bosses here at CBS 2 were sweating out a possible blackout of the Bears-Baltimore Ravens game.

CBS rarely gets a Bears game because most of those NFC contests air on Fox. Even a lousy Bears game can draw much larger than average ratings--and ad revenue.

About 2,000 seats were still unsold as of the Thursday blackout deadline, but WBBM agreed to purchase any unsold tickets so that it could air the game. The Bears continued to sell tickets up until kickoff, so it is not known exactly how many ticket WBBM bought.

Both teams were awful, but the Jim Harbaugh-led Bears won easily, 24-3.

The last game to be blacked out in Chicago was against Denver in September, 1984. The Bears scored all of their points in the first half, winning 27-0. Some guy named John Elway was in his second year as a Bronco.

Eventually, the NFL relaxed the "sell-out" requirement, requiring that about 85 percent of tickets be sold.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.