FCC votes to end sports blackout rule over NFL’s objection

Fans cheer the San Diego Chargers during their home game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

Despite strong opposition from the NFL, the Federal Communications Commission is dropping a rule that has allowed the professional football league to black out games, saying the provision is as outdated as leather helmets.

The National Football League still can enforce its own policy that prevents games from being broadcast locally if they are not sold out in order to encourage fans to attend games.

But the FCC said it would repeal its nearly 40-year-old rule that has prohibited cable and satellite TV providers from airing blacked-out games in the home team’s market.

“The FCC’s blackout rule was enacted in 1975 when the NFL’s main source of revenue was gate receipts and most games didn’t sell out,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said.

“Today’s NFL is an entertainment powerhouse, generating nearly $10 billion a year, mostly from TV revenue,” he said. “Clearly the NFL no longer needs the government’s help to remain viable.”


The FCC’s decision will not affect blackouts that occur because of disputes between sports teams and TV providers, such as the one that has left most Los Angeles households from being able to watch Dodgers baseball broadcasts this season.

In that dispute, Time Warner Cable, which owns the local TV rights to Dodgers games, has failed to reach deals with other cable and satellite providers to carry the new SportsNet LA channel that airs the games.

Wheeler, who has publicly criticized Time Warner Cable’s inability to strike a deal with other pay-TV distributors, said he hopes the agency’s vote sends a message that “leads to the elimination of sports blackouts altogether.”

But given the reduced number of NFL blackouts — just two out of 256 games last season — the FCC’s decision is unlikely to have much effect on that league or any other sports broadcasting disputes, said Scott Rosner, a sports-business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I’m just not sure we need federal regulation to address what is really a very, very small issue for the league,” he said, agreeing with Wheeler that the rule had outlived its usefulness. “I can’t imagine the players in these larger rights-fee disputes having a scintilla of care about blackout rules in their negotiations.”

The NFL, backed by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, warned that eliminating the rule could endanger a system that has allowed the league to keep all its games on broadcast television while other major sports have shifted most of their games to pay TV in recent decades.

“There are 60 million people and growing, including a lot of minorities, that are watching NFL football on free television, and we want to keep it that way,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in August.

“We are concerned that a change in this area ... could have an impact on the overall business model for free television,” he said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Tuesday that the league was committed to trying to avoid blackouts.

“The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future,” he said.

As NFL ticket prices have soared and many cities have publicly financed new stadiums, blackouts have become frustrating to fans, politicians and regulators.

The FCC adopted the rule in 1975, when nearly 60% of NFL games were blacked out. In recent years, blackouts have been limited to a handful of games in a small number of markets, including San Diego, Buffalo and Cincinnati, the FCC said.

In addition, the main source of revenue for the NFL now comes from television rights, reducing the need to protect ticket revenue, the FCC said.

The agency dismissed NFL warnings that the rule’s elimination could lead to an end to football on broadcast TV, noting that contracts with networks last through 2022.

Rosner was dubious as well.

“I don’t think there’s any imminent or medium-term likelihood of that happening in the slightest degree,” he said.

Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, called the blackout rule “as outdated as a wood-paneled TV set on a lime-green shag carpet.”

“Blackouts are anti-consumer and anti-fan, and we’re glad the FCC decided to blow the whistle on the old rule,” she said.

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