Black lawmakers push to save sports blackout rule

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Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to uphold a rule that keeps some sports games off cable and satellite TV.

Thirteen members of the caucus, led by Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), urged the commission not to eliminate its sports blackout rule, which they said would hurt fans who rely solely on broadcast TV.

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“We are concerned with the FCC’s proposal to eliminate the sports blackout rule and undermine the ability of sports programming, particularly NFL games, to remain widely available on free television,” the lawmakers wrote in a July letter that was made public this week.

Changes to the rule “may negatively affect our constituents and potentially reduce the availability or quality of television programming they can access,” the lawmakers added, because they might spur the NFL to move more games from free broadcast networks like NBC and CBS to channels only seen with a cable or satellite subscription.

That is exactly what the NFL has warned might happen if the rules, which prevent cable and satellite companies from showing a game that is blacked out on local broadcast stations, are eliminated. The league currently requires broadcast stations to black out games that don’t sell out ahead of time.

The momentum seems to be against the lawmakers.

All five FCC commissioners voted to consider getting rid of the 40-year old rules last year. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said last week that the commission should finalize the effort because it “shouldn’t get involved in handing out special favors or picking winners and losers.” 

The NFL, meanwhile, has called in a blitz to save the rules. League officials have made multiple visits to the FCC’s Washington headquarters and brought in former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann to give public interviews supporting the existing rule. 

Even if the FCC does scrap the rules, leagues like the NFL would still be able to cut deals with broadcasters as well as cable and satellite companies to black out some games.

However, the league has tried “to make blackouts exceedingly rare,” it said, by letting teams lower the bar of what counts as a blacked-out game and, in some instances, extending the deadline for them to sell out. In a few recent cases, corporate partners have reportedly stepped in to buy large blocks of tickets to keep games on the air for local fans.

To reformers, that’s a signal that they are already winning.

“We are having an impact even before the FCC completes its action,” David Goodfriend, chairman of the Sports Fan Coalition, told The Hill this week. “Fans are better off.”