It has almost been forgotten that the Washington Redskins were once so popular that their success caused Congress to pass a bill forcing the NFL to lift TV blackouts if games were sold out 72 hours before kickoff.
Back in the day, the NFL blacked out home games within a 75-mile radius of the home team even if they were sold out. Even Super Bowls were blacked out in the home city.
That all changed in 1972, when the Redskins hosted two home playoff games and they were blacked out.
Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception that same year was blacked out in Pittsburgh.
But blacking out a game in Pittsburgh was not like blacking out a game in Washington.
Washington has a lot of lawmakers who didn’t have tickets for the Redskins games and were upset that the games were blacked out.
Even President Richard Nixon got into the act. He told commissioner Pete Rozelle that if they would lift the blackouts for the playoff games, he would veto any legislation to lift the blackouts for regular-season games.
Rozelle turned down the offer and told Congress, “You will someday see empty stands.’’
As it turned out, the Senate passed the bill 76-6, and it sailed through the House of Representatives and Nixon signed it. Rozelle’s comments fell on deaf ears.
Rozelle also said, “The business of professional football is in fact a very small business indeed. The entire football industry in an economic sense ranks with the American rope-and-twine manufacturing industry.’’
Rozelle was actually right about that. Teams weren’t worth billions in those days.
Cleveland owner Art Modell claimed that lifting blackouts “would be [financially] disastrous to us.’’
But Rozelle and the rest of the NFL owners were wrong about the impact of lifting the blackouts.
As it turned out, the blackout had little effect on attendance. If fans want to come, they will attend even if it’s shown on local TV. If they don’t want to go, they won’t even if the game is blacked out.
In fact, the NFL no longer blacks out games that aren’t sold out.
What’s also changed is that the Redskins are no longer anywhere near as popular as they were in the 1970s. The colorful George Allen was their coach in 1972 when they made the Super Bowl, and then the Joe Gibbs era started in 1981 and they went to four Super Bowls, winning three of them. It’s hard to overstate how popular the team was in those days.
I covered the Redskins from 1984 until 1995 for The (Baltimore) Sun and saw the frenzy firsthand.
That’s all changed since Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. The Washington Capitals are now the toast of the town after winning the Stanley Cup while the Redskins have season tickets to sell.
The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported that the Redskins no longer have a waiting list for season tickets. It used to take years for a fan to get a ticket once they got on the waiting list because there were thousands of fans on the list.
Now they have season tickets for sale.
The team’s new chief operating officer, Brian Lafemina, said they are “taking a fresh look at every area of the business.’’
Last year, they sold only 88 percent of the tickets they had available, which ranked 28th in the league.
Solving the problem will be no easy feat because most of the problems stem from Snyder’s ownership, and he shows no sign he has any interest in selling the team.
The Redskins, meanwhile, remain a cautionary tale for the NFL: No matter how successful a team is, there’s no guarantee it will remain successful, especially if there is a change at the top.