The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the sports blackout rule that allowed leagues to keep cable and satellite television providers from broadcasting games that were blacked out on local broadcast channels. The rules applied primarily to the National Football League, which keeps its games off of local TV if more than 85 percent of tickets aren’t sold at least 72 hours before kickoff.
The NFL requires local broadcasters to blackout games that do not reach that threshold; the FCC rules, expanded in 1975, prohibited cable and satellite providers from showing games that are blacked out in local markets. The FCC decision might not eliminate blackouts altogether, as the NFL and other leagues can still enforce their own blackout policies and could negotiate deals with providers that keep them from airing certain games, but it does mean that the NFL “will no longer be entitled to the protection” of the federal government, the FCC said in a statement.
“This is a historic day for sports fans,” David Goodfriend of the Sports Fan Coalition, which has lobbied against the rule, said in a statement. “Since 1975, the federal government has propped up the NFL’s obnoxious practice of blacking out a game from local TV if the stadium did not sell out. Today’s FCC action makes clear: if leagues want to mistreat fans, they will have to do so without Uncle Sam’s help.”
The blackout rules are a relic of an era when NFL owners feared that putting games on TV would drive down attendance, but opponents have argued that the rule is especially antiquated now that teams derive more of their overall revenues from TV than from ticket sales and gate receipts. The FCC noted in its statement that the NFL gains $6 billion in revenue from television each year, and that blackouts have become rare: only two games have been blacked out since the beginning of the 2013 season.
While the league, which engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to save the rules, says that it could move games to pay-TV as a result of the decision, the FCC did not believe that argument and economists say that is unlikely to happen.
“The claim is that they’re going to have to renegotiate…and that somehow, since that means the marginal value of of a game on broadcast TV in their claim is lower, that they’d just as soon take those games over to cable,” University of Michigan sports economist Rodney Fort, who has studied the issue and poked holes in the NFL’s arguments before, said. “And of course the bottom line on that is, if that were true and that margin were already there, they’d already be migrating those games to cable. So we can take this as prima facie evidence that that’s just not the case.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who has opposed the rule, tweeted afterward that the “decision is progress” for sports fans. But Blumenthal also called for the passage of a bill introduced by he and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), another long-standing opponent of blackout rules, that would “end sports blackouts once and for all.”