The FCC has voted to eliminate the sports blackout rule, removing a 40-year-old regulation from the books that helped keep NFL games and other sports off TV when a city’s hometown team failed to sell out.
The rule prevented cable and satellite systems from showing an NFL or other major sporting event if it was blacked out on a local broadcast station in that market. The elimination of the rule, however, still won’t prevent the NFL or other sports teams from forging private pacts with broadcast stations to keep games off the air if ticket sales fall short.
Nevertheless, the NFL and the National Assn. of Broadcasters opposed the move, arguing that it will help drive the migration of games to pay TV platforms. Under the FCC’s action, cable and satellite providers won’t be prevented from obtaining rights to retransmit games from out-of-market stations.
The NFL argued that sports blackouts are rare, and only two football games were blacked out last season.
In a meeting laced with sports metaphors, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said that “if there are blackouts next weekend or Monday night or Thursday night or Sunday, it will be the decision of the league owners without the participation of the federal government….Everyone needs to be aware who allows blackouts to exist, and it is not the Federal Communications Commission.”
The rule was put in place in 1975, when teams greatest source of revenue came from gate receipts. “Today the NFL is an entertainment powerhouse,” Wheeler said. “Clearly the NFL no longer needs the government’s help to remain viable.”
Commissioners noted that the economics of pro football had changed considerably since the 1970s, with ever-greater TV rights deals and ever higher ticket prices. A coalition of sports fans, in fact, said that if the NFL was so concerned over filling a stadium, they could lower the cost of admission.
“Let’s be clear here this morning, the vast majority of fans cannot afford to attend let alone park” at games, said FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who originally circulated the proposal when she was acting chairwoman in 2013.
All of the commissioners voted to eliminate the rule.
“The FCC shouldn’t be involved in the sports blackout business,” said commissioner Ajit Pai. “It is the commission’s job to support the public interest, not the private interest of team owners.”
He said that he hoped that the NFL wouldn’t respond by “digging in its heels,” but would examine its own sports blackout policy. He also doubted an immediate migration of NFL games to cable and satellite, noting the length of broadcast rights deals and the value that pro-football gains from over-the-air telecasts, which routinely rank atop the ratings.
“The NFL does not need FCC rules to do what it could do for itself,” said commissioner Michael O’Rielly, noting that the NFL would still have plenty of leverage to make contractual demands.
Wheeler already has weighed in on another controversy in the NFL: The name of Washington’s hometown team, the Redskins. In an interview with Broadcasting and Cable, he called the name “offensive and derogatory.” On Tuesday, in a press availability, Wheeler reiterated his opinion without mentioning the name. A law professor is challenging the license of Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s WWXX-FM, contending that the use of the term represents broadcast obscenity.
“We will be dealing with that issue on the merits and we will respond accordingly,” Wheeler said.