Why the Congressional Black Caucus is urging the FCC to save the sports blackout rule

August 19

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 18: Quarterback Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins and guard Shawn Lauvao #77 of the Washington Redskins high-five during a preseason game against Cleveland Browns at FedExField on August 18, 2014 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus want to save a controversial rule whose critics say makes it impossible for sports fans to watch their local teams.

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, over a dozen black lawmakers said repealing the sports blackout rule, as at least one FCC commissioner has suggested, would hurt the business model that supports sports leagues like the NFL, as well as broadcasters.

"Without this rule in place," the lawmakers wrote, "cable and satellite television providers would potentially be able to undermine contractual agreements between professional sports leagues and broadcast networks that both support attendance at games and improve the viewing experience for fans in the stadium, as well as those watching at home."

Under the current rules, football games that don't fill the stadium to capacity can't be shown on local over-the-air television. The result is that many fans who would prefer to watch from home can't do so in those situations — and that's led some, like FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, to demand that the rule be repealed.

"I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies," said Pai in recent remarks. "Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners." (A spokesman for Pai declined to comment on the letter.)

But the black lawmakers, led by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), fired back Tuesday that 99 percent of NFL games last year were sold out at the stadium and as a result were viewable on free TV. That model works, Fudge and her colleagues argued.

A lawyer who works with the NFL warned that if the blackout rule were repealed, sports leagues could be tempted to move games onto cable as attendance at games declined. That would force diehard fans who currently watch games on TV without cable to start paying for a cable subscription — a potentially expensive proposition that would hurt minorities and the poor, the members of the Black Caucus argued.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) side with cable company interests often. They've supported the industry in the past by arguing against imposing stricter regulations on Internet providers, which has provoked criticism from consumer advocates. Members of the CBC have opposed unbundling cable channels and creating an a la carte service that would undermine the cable industry's business model.

In this case, however, the lawmakers appear to be backing the interests of broadcasters over cable. Preserving the sports blackout rule, according to Ayofemi Kirby, a spokesperson for the CBC, would help preserve broadcasters' revenue over the long term.

"This rule currently protects a local broadcasting model that allows a certain type of free programming," said Kirby. "What members support is always in the best interest of low income constituents and communities of color."

Read the full letter below.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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