Groups Push FCC to Eliminate Sports Blackout Rule

Published December 28, 2011

National public interest groups, media companies, and legislators are joining forces to push the Federal Communications Commission to end its sports blackout rule.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called for the FCC to eliminate the rule. “In order to facilitate a conversation on sports blackouts and sports programming, I urge the FCC to allow public comment on these issues,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter to the FCC on Dec. 7. “Blackouts are unfair to fans. Indeed, blackouts are highly anti-consumer, whether they are a result of a league policy or an agreement—or lack of agreement—between networks and content owners. This behavior is especially unacceptable because fans pay high prices to watch sports, whether in the form of ticket prices, premium sports programming, or taxpayer subsidies for new stadiums.”

The newly formed Sports Fans Coalition petitioned the FCC in November, saying the blackout rule is unnecessary and benefits sports leagues to the detriment of broadcasters and fans. SFC members include the National Consumer League, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, and the League of Fans.

Subjected to Blackouts
The FCC’s Sports Blackout Rule was instituted in 1975. It allows a sports league such as the National Football League to prevent local broadcasters from televising games that haven’t been sold out, and prevents game telecasts from being used by other television providers. The FCC adopted the rule without any input from Congress.

The SFC says ticket prices for professional sports events are unaffordable for most fans in an unstable economy. SFC Executive Director Brian Frederick agrees with Blumenthal’s charge that fans and taxpayers shouldn’t be subjected to blackouts after bankrolling NFL stadiums.

“All we’re asking is that at the very least, they open up a docket and allow for public conversation,” said Frederick. “Allow fans and other consumers and media and the leagues to weigh in and say, ‘Here’s what’s best.'”

Siding with NFL
“I’m very sensitive to fans’ concerns, but I’m going to fall on the side of the NFL on this one,” said Larry DeGaris, associate professor of marketing and director of the academic sports marketing program at the University of Indianapolis. “Given that the SFC receives support from Time Warner Cable and Verizon, it’s very curious that they’ve chosen an issue and position which, as the NFL notes, benefits pay-TV providers,” he said.

“TV blackouts are important to small-market and/or struggling NFL teams, which depend on gate receipts to remain financially viable,” DeGaris continued. “The combination of a down economy, increased home TV technology, which makes staying home to watch the game more appealing, and an aging fan base perhaps more sensitive to outdoor conditions, all have put pressure on attendance, which is down in several markets across the league.”

DeGaris added, “Now, there’s a question about whether the blackout policy hurts or helps attendance, meaning whether or not it achieves the goal of increasing attendance. TV broadcasts are important in generating new fans, who might attend games. High ticket prices don’t seem to be a factor. Tickets are readily available on StubHub for $15. Besides, the local broadcast companies will more than make up for the cost of the tickets they buy [in order to avert a blackout] with one 30-second advertising spot,” he said.

The effort to rescind the blackout is unlikely to succeed, says Shawn McBride, vice president and director of client services at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment in New York. “The efforts by Sports Fan Coalition and other similar groups are certainly very noble,” he said.

“However, it is highly unlikely that short of a protracted legal proceeding any change will be made to the current blackout rules,” McBride continued. “The reality is that the NFL is the most powerful—and arguably, healthy—professional sports league in the country, and any significant change related to revenues, broadcast-related or otherwise, would need to be agreed upon through collective bargaining.”

DeGaris said, “I don’t think blackouts are much of an issue for sports fans. It’s odd that the SFC has chosen blackouts as an issue, given that there are many more issues which are of much greater concern to sports fans and on which they could use a voice.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.