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The FCC just sacked the sports blackout rule

( <a href="">yourdon</a>  via Flickr)
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Federal regulators on Thursday sacked the longstanding sports “blackout” rule that prevents certain games from being shown on TV if attendance to the live event is poor.

In a bipartisan vote, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously agreed to strike down the much-criticized 40-year-old policy. Under the blackout rule, games that failed to sell enough tickets could not be shown on free, over-the-air television in the home team's own local market.

The FCC said the rule mainly benefits team owners and sports leagues, such as the NFL, by driving ticket sales but it does not serve consumers.

”For 40 years, these teams have hidden behind a rule of the FCC,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “No more. Everyone needs to be aware who allows blackouts to exist, and it is not the Federal Communications Commission.”

The rule was initially put in place in 1975 amid concerns of flagging attendance at live sports games. At the time, almost 60 percent of NFL games were blacked out on broadcast TV because not enough fans were showing up at stadiums. Today, that figure stands at less than one percent, and professional football is so popular on TV that programming contracts contribute “a substantial majority of the NFL’s revenues,” said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

The NFL has warned that ending the blackout rule would hurt consumers by encouraging leagues to move their programming exclusively to pay TV. But Pai pushed back against those claims Tuesday, saying teams can’t afford not to air their games on broadcast TV.

”By moving games to pay TV,” said Pai, “the NFL would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.”

The vote doesn’t mean that blackouts are going away immediately. The NFL still has blackout rules written into individual contracts with regional sports broadcasters. In general, these deals last until the beginning of the next decade. The FCC’s rule, which was struck down, essentially served as a stamp of approval for the NFL’s policy.

In new contracts, the NFL would have to renew those blackout provisions over the objections of the federal government. On Tuesday, the FCC’s message was clear: If the NFL chooses that path, it will be the only one bearing the brunt of consumer ire, particularly from low-income Americans and the disabled who can’t make it or have a harder time getting to the games.

The cable industry welcomed the 5-0 vote.

”We commend the commission’s unanimous decision to eliminate the antiquated sports blackout rule,” said the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. “As the video marketplace continues to evolve and offers consumers more competition and a growing variety of new services, we encourage the FCC to continue its examination of outdated rules that no longer make sense.”

The FCC’s action represents the latest blow to the NFL, which is still reeling from the fallout of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal. Calls have grown louder for league commissioner Roger Goodell to resign after his tepid response to affair.

The NFL indicated Tuesday that it had no immediate plans to change how it broadcasts games.

“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” the NFL said in a statement. “The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”

While blackouts are rare today, there are examples. Football fans in Buffalo, Cincinnati, San Diego and Tampa Bay have all faced blacked-out games over the past few years. In total, two games in the 2013 season and 15 in 2012 were blacked out.