Early this morning, the FCC unanimously voted to do away with the 40-year old blackout rule. The rule blocked local audiences if the stadium didn’t sell a certain percentage of tickets within 72 hours of the game. While this sounds like a win for sports fans, there’s more to the story than news results are letting on.

Yes, the FCC controls broadcasting rights, but only for national cable and satellite providers, not for local networks. The blackout agreements are privately negotiated between a team or stadium and the local majority network – the FCC has no direct dealing in these agreements. The FCC’s primary role in these situations is to uphold the blackouts across national broadcasts.

So while the FCC can pretty readily drop their blackout rules, the results won’t be as free and clear as we’d all like. The local networks at the end of the line can still blackout the game as per their contract with the NFL. And FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly says, “The NFL has the right to enforce their current blackout rules and I suspect that they will continue to do so.”

NFL senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch supports the blackout rule for two reasons:

  1. First, “the rule makes certain we continue to maintain having our games on free television without an issue.” The NFL is about the only professional sports league that still airs games over local broadcast channels, rather than through pay-TV providers, making their games free for anyone with an antenna and television set. However, despite Birch’s claims, the blackout rule (which blocks local audiences if a stadium doesn’t sell out) seems like it causes a significant issue for viewers.
  2. And second, the games are beneficial for local economies, so having the stadiums sell out is in everyone’s best interests. Which, if you read between the lines, suggests that the NFL in their privately negotiated broadcast contracts can still blackout any game that doesn’t meet required ticket sales.

The NFL has created a website working with free TV sources to help educate fans: ProtectFootballOnFreeTV.com, and while it answers many questions, it leaves a lot unsaid. They argue that pay-TV providers are “manufacturing a controversy” so they can justify charging fans for games they currently watch for free. But the league still appears to have every intention (and right) to blackout games wherever they feel beneficial.

One writer enthused, “blackouts immediately will go the way of the dodo bird, the dropkick, and Tom Brady’s talent.” But Daniel Kaplan, a reporter for the SportsBusiness Journal tweeted, “Source tells me there will be no change in NFL blackout policy after FCC vote, as agency commissioners predicted.” So we won’t really notice a difference from the couch-end of the TV screen.


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