FCC moves to end sports blackouts

December 18, 2013

(John Sommers II/Reuters)

The Federal Communications Commission moved Wednesday to eliminate sports blackouts on television that have frustrated fans over the years by preventing many of them from watching their local teams.

The league that has been most impacted by blackouts is the NFL. It has a rule, written decades ago, when watching the games on television wasn’t as big as going to the stadium. Currently, if an NFL team does not sell out its game by Thursday, the local broadcast of its weekend game would be blacked out. The game could still be seen in other parts of the country. (The Redskins haven’t faced this situation in years since their games almost always sell out).

Blackouts also show up in other sports, too. In baseball or hockey, the rules are more complicated. Generally blackouts are used to protect local stations that have bought the rights to broadcast games for local teams. So if a local network such as MASN owns the rights to show the Nationals, the team’s games cannot appear on ESPN, MLB Network or other cable channels in regions where viewers get MASN’s broadcasts.

There’s an exception to this, however. When the right to broadcast a baseball game is bought exclusively by a national network – think Fox’s "Game of the Week" on Saturday or ESPN’s "Sunday Night Baseball" – those games cannot air anywhere else, including on increasingly popular apps that show sports live on smartphone or tablets.

In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC says the blackout rules might be outdated -- especially given the financial success of the major sports leagues. Notably, the agency asked Congress if it has the authority to change the rules on its own.

"The sports industry has changed dramatically in the last 40 years ... and the Petitioners argue that the economic rationale underlying the sports blackout rules may no longer be valid," the FCC says.

The change by the FCC wouldn’t end blackouts altogether. The FCC said individual teams could still negotiate blackout rules with cable and satellite operators.

Separately, senators have proposed legislation aimed at ending blackouts -- an issue fans have long griped about.

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Aaron Blake | December 18, 2013