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A Mississippi television blackout of the Independence Bowl being imposed by Southern Mississippi has many fans up in arms, but school officials said this week they won't lift the ban until sagging ticket sales pick up.

"We would love nothing more than to see the blackout lifted and for the game to be televised throughout Mississippi," Southern Mississippi athletic director Bill McLellan said at a press conference this week as he tried to explain the school's position to the public."However, we feel there are several factors we have to consider in imposing the blackout. Such blackouts are commonplace at all levels of sports to ensure that the necessary tickets are sold."

It's a no-win situtation for Southern Mississippi which is looking to gain all the exposure it can while trying to make as much as possible.

McLellan said Southern Mississippi, which is the host team, has been allotted 15,000 tickets to sell, and until 10,000 of them are sold, no one will be able to watch the game at home in Mississippi. Mizlou Television has the rights to the game, but a clause in their contract allows Southern Mississippi to black out the game in Mississippi.

USM officials, however, have said the blackout could be lifted as late as five minutes before the Dec. 23 game against Texas-El Paso if ticket sales reach an acceptable level.

"Certainly we are aware that this blackout will impose a hardship on some of our fans who were loyal throughout the year," McLellan said, "but as always we must remain committed to running the USM athletic department as a business, and to making the hard decisions necessary to follow that course."

The blackout announcement was greeted by sharp criticism from the public and the media with a stinging editorial appearing in one state newspaper.

Southern Mississippi said it has sold just under 4,000 tickets as of this week for the game. UTEP officials reportedly are having an even tougher time selling tickets, partly due to another bowl game in El Paso that same weekend.

Southern Mississippi was able to draw over 25,000 to just one of four home games this year in Hattiesburg, with heavy rains keeping attendance down at two games. The school averaged 18,836 fans at 33,000-seat Roberts Stadium this year.

Southern Mississippi can receive a maximum of $500,000 for the appearance, McLellan said. The school, however, will have to purchase the remaining tickets it can't sell. Based on the $29 face value, for every 5,000 tickets not sold, USM will lose just under $150,000.

As it stands now, if Southern Mississippi doesn't sell another ticket the school stands to make very little.

Critics of the blackout say school administrators are taking a short-term look at the attendance problem instead of using the television exposure of this year's bowl to build fan support.

McLellan said, however, the school needs to show it can fill seats to attract future bowl bids.