The Federal Communications Commission (or, FCC) is moving to ban sports blackouts, and the National Football League is already lined up in opposition to the change. The FCC released the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Wednesday, after adopting it on Tuesday; it would eliminate current blackout rules.
Blackout rules, the FCC explains, started almost 40 years ago. The rules prevent a broadcaster from transmitting a local sporting event if the stadium did not sell out. The rule was born in a different economic climate, the FCC said. Then, the main revenue for a sports league were game ticket sales, and blacking out the game on local TV was an attempt to keep attendance high.
According to the FCC, this is no longer the case. “Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public.” Ultimately, the FCC believes the blackout rules no longer need to be in place.
“The sports industry has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, however, and the Petitioners argue that the economic rationale underlying the sports blackout rules may no longer be valid.” Which is why the FCC is proposing “to eliminate the sports blackout rules and seek comment on the potential benefits and harms of that proposed action on interested parties, including sports leagues, broadcasters, and consumers.”
Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesperson, emailed a response to Bloomberg about the changes. Only one game so far this season has been affected by the rule, according to McCarthy, an historic low, and the current policy has contributed to that. “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,” McCarthy stated. By the FCC’s analysis, there is “no direct link between blackouts and increased attendance at NFL games.”
Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president and founder of Pilson Communications, disagrees. Pilson also reached out to Bloomberg in an email. “The leagues and the teams have a strong interest in promoting attendance at home games. If the game is available on TV, some people will elect to stay home and watch.”
In the proposed rule, the FCC said that in 1974, 59 percent of regular season games were blacked out, and in 2011, 6 percent (or, sixteen games) had been subject to a blackout. A rule change in 2012 allowed teams to set “their own blackout threshold — anywhere from 85 percent to 100 percent — at the beginning of the season and adhere to that number throughout that season.” A total of fifteen blackouts occurred in 2012.
Professional football is not the only sport subject to blackouts. The rule applies across the board, “including telecasts of high school, college, and professional sports, and individual as well as team sports.” However, the FCC says it has little information for sports other than the NFL, and invited insight from others. The FCC did single out professional baseball. The FCC speculates that, “The number of MLB games blacked out is relatively small because individual MLB teams, rather than the league,” will negotiate terms with regional sports networks and local broadcasters, “for exclusive rights to televise most of the teams’ games, both home and away games, in the teams’ home territories.”
The impact of adopting the rule could be muted, because the leagues “could still require local television stations to black out games; thus, consumers that rely on over-the-air television would still be unable to view blacked-out games.”