The inability of the Raiders to sell out again this year in time to lift the television blackout--even for a game against the Rams--is once more calling attention to the inadequacies of the Coliseum as a football stadium.
Before a Raider television blackout can be lifted, 92,488 tickets must be sold, and, of this total, at least 15,000 are tickets have a distant view of the field.
Potential spectators consider the Coliseum’s worst seats so bad that in 7 years in Los Angeles, the Raiders, veterans of four Super Bowl appearances, have only once sold out in time to televise a regular-season home game live.
For promotional and other reasons earlier in their L.A. era, the Raiders televised a few other games. But only once--for a game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 22, 1985--did they sell the 92,488th ticket required 72 hours before the kickoff. And in the 3 years since then, they’ve rarely come close.
In other National Football League cities, pro games are routinely televised live from generally large stadiums.
Either regularly, or at least occasionally, the fans of 27 of the 28 NFL teams get to watch the home team live on local television.
The Raiders are the exception.
Is this fair to sports fans here?
Why doesn’t the Coliseum Commission do something about its worst seats?
How can the league and the Raiders impose an unrealistic blackout pattern on the fans of this city?
Basically, there are three major reasons.
--The club and the league both say that the Raiders are conforming to an inflexible NFL rule. As a condition for televising home games, the league requires a stadium sellout regardless of stadium size.
--The NFL refuses to change this rule for Los Angeles. The NFL has declined all invitations to arbitrarily lower the magic television figure at the Coliseum from 92,000 to, say, a more realistic 80,000. The league says that if it made an exception here, it would be under heavy pressure to ease its blackout standards in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland and other cities that have relatively big stadiums with varying numbers of bad seats.
“Our present policy is based on an (Act of Congress) that was the law of the land in 1973-74-75,” said Val Pinchbeck Jr., the NFL’s director of broadcasting. “It doesn’t make sense for us to go further than (Congress) said by law we had to go.”
--The Coliseum Commission last year rejected a proposal, one sought by both the Raiders and USC, to tear out the worst seats in the stadium and establish a new capacity figure of about 78,000. Under this plan, every Raider home game could be televised here live whenever the ticket sale reached that total. For non-football events, Coliseum capacity could remain at 92,000.
As recommended by the USC administration and by Raider managing general partner Al Davis, there would have been thousands of movable seats on the track plus other up-close bleachers in the peristyle end--along with a number of luxury boxes--all funded out of the $29 million the Raiders earned for the Coliseum when they won their lawsuit against the league.
The 1981-82 Coliseum Commission, led by labor executive Bill Robertson, agreed to the renovation when negotiating the Raiders’ move from Oakland.
But later in the ‘80s, the Robertson commission was overruled by a new Coliseum Commission led by real estate developer Alex Haagen, who, in his fight against USC and the Raiders, had the strong support of the county Board of Supervisors.
Although Mayor Tom Bradley favored the Raider-Trojan proposal, the city has only three votes on the nine-member board to three for the county and three for the state.
When the Haagen commission turned him down, Davis began looking for a new stadium. And when he decided on a site in Irwindale, he gave up on the Coliseum, leaving the 15,000 bad seats there intact.
Things are in a mess, the Raiders agree. But they say it isn’t their fault. They hold the Haagen faction on the Coliseum Commission mainly to blame.
According to a New York source close to the league, Davis, early in his Los Angeles tenure, was censured by the NFL when he announced that as a good-will gesture, the blackout would be lifted for a Raider exhibition game at the Coliseum.
The league’s television committee, assailing Davis for what it called another maverick idea, threatened to get an injunction prohibiting the broadcast. In the end, it settled for a more tightly worded NFL policy statement preventing the Raider owner and all other club owners from making individual blackout decisions.
Davis declined to be interviewed for this story.
In question-and-answer form, here’s a look at various aspects of the issue:
Question: What are the stadium capacities in the NFL?
Answer: They range from 92,488 in Los Angeles to 55,670 in Washington and 50,594 in Houston. The largest stadiums east of the Coliseum are in Detroit (80,638), Buffalo (80,290) and Cleveland (80,218).
Q: Isn’t it true that Cleveland lifts the blackout sometimes when the Browns don’t sell out?
A: “I don’t know how that rumor got started,” Cleveland owner Art Modell said. “We only lift when the tickets are all sold. If we have 500 seats left and I see that we’re going to sell out, I might lift, but never if there are 1,000 or 2,000 left.”
Q: How often do the bigger Eastern stadiums sell out 72 hours before the kickoff?
A: It depends on the quality of the teams and the games. All three Buffalo home games were on Buffalo television after selling out last month.
Q: The Raiders, however, were blacked out in Los Angeles when an even larger crowd--the largest in the NFL this year, 86,027--saw the Raider-Ram game Sept. 18. Why doesn’t the NFL lift blackouts on a uniform basis, in every city, when the ticket sales anywhere reach an arbitrary figure, 65,000, 70,000 or 80,000?
A: “I’d say there are two basic reasons why the (NFL’s club) owners wouldn’t agree to that,” said the league’s executive director, Don Weiss, speaking after consultation with Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“No. 1, we opposed the 1973 legislation that told us when we could and couldn’t lift TV blackouts. We said that law wasn’t good for the NFL. And your proposal goes way beyond the 1973 law--which we continue to support as a league policy although it is no longer the law of the land.
“No. 2, in the league’s largest stadiums--in Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland et al --placing an artificial ceiling on crowd size for TV blackout purposes (would inhibit income).”
Or as Modell said from Cleveland: “People would wait for other people to buy tickets first so they wouldn’t have to buy tickets and could see it on television. In Cleveland, if we declared that 73,000 was a sellout, we wouldn’t have 60,000 for the next game.
“The problem is that lifting a blackout with less than stadium capacity deters the future sale of tickets. They don’t televise Broadway shows. We aren’t in business to give our product away.”
Q: What was the NFL’s television philosophy before it was changed by the 1973 law?
A: For many years, the league followed a policy that was first formulated by former Ram owner Dan Reeves, who televised every road game live in Los Angeles but no home games.
In fact, even the Super Bowl wasn’t on live home television in its early years. Though televised by both CBS and NBC, Super Bowl I was blacked out in Los Angeles.
During the week ahead of Super Bowl III in Miami, a Florida lawyer went to court to force the NFL’s hand but lost the case before a federal judge. The court ruled that even though the biggest game of the year was a sellout, the league was within its rights to black out Miami.
Q: Why was the law changed in 1973?
A: “The Redskins were a big story in Washington that year,” said the NFL’s director of communications, Joe Browne. “In George Allen’s second season, their 1972 team had gone to the Super Bowl--and in Washington, you couldn’t buy a ticket to a Redskin regular-season game.
“This upset Congress, which at least wanted to see the Redskins on TV. They came up with a law that the NFL couldn’t prohibit home television for any game that was sold out 72 hours before the kickoff.”
Said New York Congressman Jack Kemp: “It passed quicker than anything since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.”
Q: Why didn’t the NFL go back to its old policy when the law expired in 1975?
A: “There was a lot of discussion, in and out of the league, about what to do,” Browne said. “Finally, Commissioner Rozelle announced that if Congress wants it this way, we’ll adhere to the 1973 law. This is NFL policy, binding on all 28 clubs, not subject to individual interpretation in L.A. or anywhere else.”
Q: Should Los Angeles sports fans be penalized simply because their stadium is the NFL’s largest?
A: “That’s the way the ball bounces,” Modell said.
“As you know, Detroit is something of a depressed area these days,” Browne said. “If you televised all games with crowds of more than 80,000 in Los Angeles, which isn’t a depressed area, Detroit would be under heavy pressure to cut the blackout figure from 80,000 to 65,000, or whatever. The fans of all teams with big stadiums would want it.”
Q: Within the NFL today, there is also heavy pressure to resist the lifting of any more television blackouts. Where is this pressure coming from?
A: A source said that much of it comes from the owners of visiting teams--that is, from half the league every Sunday. Visiting owners get 40% of Coliseum revenue at every Raider home game. If the TV blackout were lifted after sales of 70,000 or 80,000 tickets, some crowds would be smaller, and the visitors would make less money. The same would be true in many NFL cities.
Radio advertisers also oppose any plan that might lead to more television. When the local game is televised, fewer fans turn to their radios. And in the NFL’s present economy, radio income is substantial in many franchises.
Q: The Chicago Bears are a typical NFL enterprise, selling out every Sunday and always represented on live local television. Yet they play in a stadium that once held 110,000 for a USC-Notre Dame game. How did they reduce Soldier Field’s capacity to 63,990?
A: "(The Bears) moved from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1971,” said the club’s publicist, Ken Valdiserri. “That was 2 years before Congress lifted the blackouts for sellouts, and the reconstruction of Soldier Field had nothing to do with television.
“George Halas’ goal was to get 60,000 good seats instead of 110,000 good and bad seats. Our move was conditional on that reconstruction. The field was moved closer to the north end, and the south end was eliminated.”
In other words, Soldier Field was repaired the way USC and the Raiders hoped to renovate the Coliseum.
Other sources point out that the advantage of a smaller stadium is that more season tickets can be sold earlier, thus accumulating, for the club owners, income-bearing funds in the bank. The advantage of larger stadiums is that when the team is a big winner, more tickets can be sold.
Q: The Bears weren’t a big winner in Halas’ final years. Would they eliminate half of Soldier Field today if they could do it again?
A: “Probably not,” Valdiserri said. “The demand for tickets here now is so high that we’d be selling most of the (110,000) seats. We’d probably be going for the big crowds.”
Q: The Rams under Reeves in the ‘60s, and again under Carroll Rosenbloom in the ‘70s, also eliminated many Coliseum seats, covering them with a blanket. They also set up bleachers in the peristyle end and lowered the stadium’s capacity to well under 80,000. Why don’t the Raiders do that?
A: They say they tried to do precisely that but were turned down by the Coliseum Commission.
Reeves, the 1946-71 Ram owner; Rosenbloom, the 1972-79 Ram owner, and Davis, who has operated the Raiders in Los Angeles since 1982, all followed similar paths as NFL entrepreneurs here:
--All three were first attracted to Los Angeles from other cities by the size of the city and the Coliseum. Moving in first from, respectively, Cleveland, then Baltimore and finally Oakland, all three planned to set NFL crowd records with 90,000 averages.
--Disillusioned in time by their inability to sell the Coliseum’s poorer seats, Reeves and Rosenbloom both cut stadium capacity deliberately, and Davis planned to do so.
--Then, at last realizing that an improved Coliseum was the answer, not just less capacity, all three were frustrated by successive editions of the Coliseum Commission. When the improvements they sought weren’t forthcoming, Reeves planned to move the Rams, Rosenbloom did relocate them in Anaheim, and Davis has signed on in Irwindale.
Q: How many good seats does the Coliseum have?
A: In a place with a capacity of 92,000, there are about 20,000 seats between the goal lines. And some of these are so low that on some plays, the action is hidden from view for spectators in what should be the Coliseum’s best seats. These people find themselves sitting, or standing, behind a mob of substitutes, photographers and hangers-on along the sidelines.
It’s a historic stadium, that’s true. But as a football stadium, it has its limitations.