NFL blitzes FCC to save blackout rule

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Just in time for kickoff, the National Football League is pushing federal regulators to keep a rule on the books that forces cable and satellite companies to black out some games.

In the weeks ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener, the league has rushed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with meetings and letters, even bringing out former Steelers star Lynn Swann to aid the public relations push. 

The lobbying effort comes amid intense pressure on the FCC to eliminate its sports blackout rule, which prevents cable and satellite companies from showing a game if it is blacked out on local broadcast stations. Critics say the rule is out of date and bad for fans.

The FCC has begun the process of eliminating the rule, but the NFL, which requires broadcasters to black out games that aren’t sold out 72 hours before kickoff, is pushing back.

The league argues the rule helps teams sell tickets and creates a compelling stadium atmosphere, allowing the NFL to keep games on free television.

League lobbyist Ken Edmonds and other officials met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's legal adviser last Thursday “to emphasize that the FCC’s sports blackout rule remains necessary and in the public interest,” according to a filing made public this week.

NFL officials told the FCC that the league is working with teams “to make blackouts exceedingly rare” by letting them lower the bar of what counts as a sold-out game, and noted that attendance has increased and the number of blackouts “has dropped dramatically.”

Last year, for instance, just two of the NFL’s 256 regular season games were blacked out.

“Although the League has taken a variety of steps to accomplish that goal, the blackout rule has been a critical contributing factor to that success,” league lawyers wrote.

In recent weeks, the NFL has also sent thousands of letters to the FCC from football fans who want to keep the blackout rule alive. The league also set up a website this summer calling for fans to “protect football on free TV,” offering links to contact Congress and the FCC. 

The battle is being waged over the airwaves, too.

Swann, the Hall of Fame wide receiver and former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview with the NFL Network over the weekend that the rule “helps grow the game and helps maintain it.”

“We need to make sure to protect the game so the widest number of people possible can view it and keep it on free TV for those people who don't buy cable packages,” said Swann. He has been taking his pitch to local sports reporters and editors across the country.

When the rules were first adopted in 1975, teams said they were necessary to ensure that fans kept attending games in person instead of just watching them on TV. The potential for games to be blacked out encouraged people to buy tickets, they say, and maintain the revenue stream. 

But critics of the rules argue that times have changed. The blackout rule allows NFL teams to be immune from the normal pressures of a free market and disproportionally hurts teams in smaller cities, they say.

For now, it looks like the reformers may be winning out.

Last December, the FCC unanimously voted to move forward with a plan to end the decades-old rules.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pushed strongly for the commission to finalize that process this summer.

So far, the FCC is still reviewing the arguments and has yet to place the item on its agenda.

In the meantime, officials at the commission have held several meetings with the Sports Fan Coalition, a group pushing to kill the blackout rule.

Even if the FCC did get rid of the rule, leagues like the NFL would still be able to negotiate individually with broadcasters, cable providers and satellite companies to black out some games.

Critics of the rule say their focus hasn’t changed, even as games get underway.

“The record has proven there are no good reasons to retain this archaic rule, and Sen. McCain will continue to push for a vote on this,” a spokesman for the senator said.