FCC moves to end NFL TV blackouts


The NFL logo is on the pad on the goal post before an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
December 18, 2013

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

The proposal, which would still need a final vote by the commission, would overhaul 40-year-old rules that were written when watching games on television wasn’t as popular as going to stadiums.

The FCC said the revamp would mostly affect the NFL. Currently, if an NFL team does not sell out stadium tickets by Thursday, the local broadcast of that game is blacked out. The rule was aimed at protecting ticket sales, but an increasingly vociferous alliance of fans, lawmakers and satellite and cable companies have lobbied the agency to overturn it.

The blackout scenario could play out this weekend in Buffalo; there, the Bills and Miami Dolphins play and more than 15,000 tickets remain unsold.

“There is evidence that after nearly 40 years, the Sports Blackout Rule has outlived its relevance and utility,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in a statement. “Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games.”

The blackout rule has long frustrated fans and lawmakers who are pushing for a reform. They argue that sports leagues and broadcasters have enriched themselves through the arcane ban, given that television royalties are up to 90 percent of revenues for the NFL, according to some analysts.

“This is the beginning of the end of the Sports Blackout Rule in particular and government subsidization of anti-fan behavior by sports leagues more generally,” said David Goodfriend, chairman of the Sports Fans Coalition, an advocacy group that is being advised by Time Warner, Verizon and tech firms such as Google, Microsoft and Dish Network.

The NFL said it would oppose any change to the FCC regulation because it supports local teams and stadiums. The league said it has steadily decreased the number of games it has blacked out — only a single game has been blocked from a local broadcast in the first 15 weeks of the 2013 season, it said.

In 2012, 15 games were blacked out, down from 16 in 2011. The Washington Redskins haven’t faced a blackout in years. The team has said all of its games sell out.

“While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds,” said Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL.

His remarks were echoed by league officials in other sports, which also occasionally use blackouts.

The introduction of the proposal at the FCC signals that there is enough initial support among the five-member commission to consider overhauling the blackout rules.

The vote was unanimous to initiate a public commenting period. A final vote could take place in the first half of next year.

The proposal does not technically ban blackouts, which are negotiated privately between sports leagues and their broadcast partners.

But the rule would enable a workaround. Cable and satellite companies could carry the signal of a distant station — outside of the blacked out region — that is airing the game.

In baseball and hockey, blackouts are used to protect 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 Washington Nationals, the games cannot appear on ESPN, MLB Network or other cable channels in regions where viewers get MASN’s broadcasts.

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 apps such as MLB.TV that stream sports live on smartphones or tablets.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has criticized the NFL for charging hundreds of dollars to attend games in person. The blackouts further deprive them of supporting their local teams, he said.

The local stadiums for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax-funded and other public grants for repairs and upkeep, he noted.

“Now fans know that their loyalty — and tax money — can’t be taken advantage of,” said Brown, commending the FCC’s action. “The NFL is the world’s most profitable sports league; the average game this season has attracted 16.8 million viewers; and 19 of the 20 most watched television programs have been NFL games. Despite this, blackouts have kept fans in Ohio and across the country from watching their home team.”

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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