FCC might end sports blackout rule

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday issued a formal request for public comment on a proposal to end its sports blackout rule. 

The rule, first adopted in 1975, prohibits cable and satellite providers from carrying a sports event if the game is blacked out on local broadcast television stations.

Dropping the rule would have the most effect on the National Football League, which requires broadcasters to black out games if the local team does not sell out the stadium. The rule is meant to encourage fans to buy tickets to see the game live.

The league blacked out 16 games in 2011, down from 26 last season.   

Robert McDowell, a commissioner at the FCC, said he was "delighted" the agency is re-examining the rule.

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"Over almost four decades, the economics and structure of both the sports and communications industries have experienced dramatic evolutions," McDowell said in a statement. "We now live in a world with not only local broadcast stations, but also cable, satellite, the Internet and wireless, and where television and merchandizing revenues exceed ticket sales.  It is appropriate for us to re-examine the rule in light of marketplace changes.”

The move was in response to a petition led by the Sports Fans Coalition and other consumer groups.

The groups argued that the FCC should abandon the blackout rule in light of high unemployment levels and expensive game tickets. They also noted that sports leagues could privately negotiate blackouts without the FCC enforcing the rule.

"Fans around the country welcome the news that the government is reconsidering its role in propping up the league's unethical and counterproductive blackout policies," Brian Frederick, a spokesman for the Sports Fans Coalition, said in an email. "For too long, fans haven't had a voice on these issues but now they are being heard."

In a statement, the NFL noted that it is the only sports league that broadcasts all of its regular season and playoff games on local television.

"The policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV," the NFL said. "Teams continue to work hard to sell tickets, including offering installment payment plans, group ticket sales and price flexibility."