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Slow sales could result in no TV for Vikings

  • Article by: Kevin Seifert and Judd Zulgad
  • Star Tribune
  • August 29, 2007 - 1:12 PM

The Vikings will launch a major advertising campaign today after acknowledging that their season opener is threatened by a television blackout because of slow ticket sales.

In an interview Tuesday evening, team officials conceded their 10-year Metrodome sellout streak is in jeopardy, with their Sept. 9 game vs. Atlanta in danger of a rare blackout. The Vikings must sell 5,800 tickets by noon Sept. 6, or NFL rules will prohibit the game from being televised in the Twin Cities and many secondary markets around the state.

Steve LaCroix, Vikings vice president of sales and marketing, said that selling the remaining tickets will be a challenge. Lester Bagley, VP of public affairs, said the situation has put TV coverage in jeopardy.

"We want to let our fan base know the issue at hand," LaCroix said. "Is it insurmountable? No, I don't think so."

The Vikings' last blackout came Dec. 21, 1997, when 54,107 tickets were sold for the season finale against Indianapolis. Since then, the Vikings have sold out 96 consecutive home games, including those in the preseason.

Ticket sales have slowed measurably the past two seasons, the culmination of a six-year run of embarrassing mishaps off the field and mediocre performances on it. Fans and former players voiced their discontent during the offseason, expressing frustration with the team's direction and feeling disconnected from its operations.

Ticket prices steady

The Vikings responded by either lowering or holding steady on 67 percent of their ticket prices. They also used television and radio advertisements for the first time in recent history. Sales have nevertheless stagnated, especially single-game tickets that went on sale this summer.

The NFL requires the Vikings to sell 62,000 tickets to consider a Metrodome game sold out. Although they have met that figure for Thursday's preseason game against Dallas, the Vikings have sold only 56,200 tickets for the season opener.

"I think we can get there, but we're going to need to really have some positive movement in the coming days," LaCroix said.

That figure of 56,200 includes tickets sold through a creative policy that packaged the Falcons game with the Vikings' most popular ticket, their Sept. 30 game against the Green Bay Packers.

In order to buy a ticket for the Packers game, fans also had to purchase an equivalent ticket for the Falcons. That strategy not only left the Atlanta game short, but the Vikings still have thousands of tickets remaining for the Packers game and their other six home games, against Philadelphia, San Diego, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago and Washington.

Advertising blitz coming

The team will initiate a new advertising blitz this week, LaCroix said. It will also send e-mail alerts to 160,000 fans in its computer database in hopes of avoiding the blackout.

"We understand that in today's climate and economy, you have to compete for people's investment," LaCroix said. "It's competitive to get their attention, it's competitive to get their financial resources."

The NFL has long used the blackout threat to encourage local attendance. By rule, the league requires each of its 32 teams to sell out home games within 72 hours of kickoff. Extensions are rare, but so are blackouts: In 2006, the NFL blacked out only seven of its 256 regular-season games -- four in Buffalo, two in Oakland and one in St. Louis.

All tickets must be sold at face value to prevent mass giveaways, but LaCroix said the team has been "in discussions" with local corporations about bulk purchases.

In a 1979 provision to the Metrodome's construction, General Mills agreed to buy the unsold tickets for Vikings home games when at least 90 percent of them had been sold 72 hours before kickoff. But the $1.5 million set aside to buy unsold tickets dried up in 1994.

In general, localities within a 75-mile radius of the team's home stadium are also subject to the blackout. The exact distance varies based on the market.

Big TV ratings

A Vikings blackout would have a substantial impact on the Minnesota fan base, which even in bad times has traditionally given local broadcasters large ratings. Last year, the Vikings finished 6-10 but still averaged a 30.2 rating and a 59 share in the Twin Cities, 10th-best in the NFL.

The Falcons game is scheduled to be televised on local Fox affiliate KMSP (Ch. 9), but a blackout would mean a noon game would air on CBS in the Twin Cities. Secondary markets such as Alexandria, Austin, Mankato, Redwood Falls, Rochester and Mason City, Iowa would also see a different game. There would also be a 3:15 p.m. game televised on Fox.

Blackout rules also apply to customers in those markets who have the NFL Ticket package on DirecTV.

Minnesotans wishing to view a blacked-out Vikings game must travel to a non-local market. Because the Vikings-Falcons game is scheduled to be shown to only 9 percent of the country, a blackout would limit the in-state broadcast to markets with independent Fox stations, such as Duluth.

The game also could be viewed on satellite dishes outside of the Vikings' primary and secondary markets.

"We don't want it to come to that," Bagley said. "We have a great fan base. We want them to know the issue and we want them to show up."

Kevin Seifert • kseifert@startribune.com Judd Zulgad • jzulgad@startribune.com

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