What the New FCC Blackout Rules Actually Mean for the NFL

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If you’re at all interested in the state of the NFL’s televised endeavors, you’ve probably heard that the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, unanimously voted to repeal its rule regarding blacked-out football games, which means that games that don’t sell out aren’t automatically banned from national telecasts. The reason this all sounds so familiar is that we covered it in August, when Buffalo native Ajit Pai began making noise about wanting to get the FCC out of NFL broadcasting, since the league had long used the federal regulations as a crutch in order to continue supporting the practice.

But now that the FCC is out, what’s actually going to change? In a few words, well, probably nothing. This doesn’t mean the NFL will stop blacking out games that aren’t sold out, just that the league won’t have the government to blame when it does so. There’s nothing stopping the NFL from continuing to do so, just that it has to agree with the broadcasters. And what about the NFL’s vague threat that it’ll move its games to paid channels, rather than freebies? Probably not going to happen, either.

What is happening, though, is pretty telling. From Danial Kaplan’s Twitter feed, which has had excellent info on the ins and outs of this issue: “FCC ends blackout policy this morning. Chargers this afternoon announce need [to] sell 3,000 more tickets to air game locally Sunday.” Teams know that they’ll have to explain blackouts to fans now, especially coming from a league that claimed earlier this year that repealing its blackouts would have very little impact on business. But could the NFL really leave free television behind?

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The league’s deal with public broadcasters, which runs until 2022, says networks won’t air games unless they sell out three days beforehand. While all parties involved were able to hide behind a non-answer that doesn’t exist before, the actual nuts and bolts of that agreement haven’t changed, and any game that isn’t sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff isn’t going to be on local access.

What’s actually been repealed is the FCC ruling that prohibited a satellite or cable operator from broadcasting a game that had been blacked out locally, so a cable company can now legally air a game, even if it had already been blacked out. This is problematic for the league and the networks, since the threat of stay-at-home fans is a bigger problem today than it was when the FCC originally implemented the rule, in the 1970s, by virtue of HD television, NFL Red Zone, and the top-shelf production teams behind each NFL broadcast.

Going to a game in person can be a drag, but if not going meant that the government was going to keep the game off the air? The obvious answer is to go to the game. If the only reason the game isn’t on the air is because the NFL is being lame? That’s a slightly trickier issue for a football fan, but realistically, things look as if they’re going to continue on as usual.