FCC to kill sports blackout rule

The Federal Communications Commission will likely vote this month to kill off its decades-old sports blackout rule.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced in a USA Today op-ed on Tuesday that the agency will vote on Sept. 30 to get rid of the rule, which requires cable and satellite companies to black out some games that aren’t shown on local broadcast stations.

“With the first weekend of professional football in the books, two things should be abundantly clear: The NFL is king; and the Federal Communication Commission's sports blackout rules are obsolete and have to go,” he wrote.

The rules date from 1975, when teams said they were critical to make sure fans came to sports games in person, instead of staying home to watch them on TV, depriving them of ticket sales at the gate.

But as times have changed, criticism for the rules has mounted. Opponents say the rules allow leagues like the NFL to be immune to normal market forces and disproportionally hurts teams in smaller cities.

The NFL requires local broadcast stations like CBS or Fox to black out games that don’t sell out ahead of time. The FCC’s rules require that cable or satellite companies that carry those stations also black them out locally.

Even if the rules are vacated, leagues like the NFL would still be able to negotiate with broadcasters and cable companies to black out some games.

This month’s vote comes in the face of intense lobbying pressure from the NFL, which has blitzed the FCC to save the rule and brought on former Steelers star Lynn Swann to make the pitch around the country. Civil rights groups like the National Urban League and a number of lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus have also called for the FCC to uphold the rules. 

The league and other supporters of the regulations say they are necessary to ensure that games stay on free broadcast stations, instead of forcing them onto cable channels where revenue might be higher.

“To hear the NFL describe it, you would think that putting a game on CBS, NBC or Fox was a money-losing proposition instead of a highly profitable multi-billion dollar business,” Wheeler retorted in his op-ed on Tuesday. “If the league truly has the best interest of millions of American fans at heart, they could simply commit to staying on network television in perpetuity.”

Last year, just two professional football games were blacked out. 

“The bottom line is the NFL no longer needs the government's help to remain viable,” Wheeler added. “And we at the FCC shouldn't be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV.”

An NFL spokesman referred The Hill to the nearly 20,000 letters fans have sent in support of the existing rules, which Swann previously called part of a “growing chorus” calling for keeping them in place.