FCC kills sports blackout rules

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday voted to kill off its four-decade-old sports blackout rules over the fierce objections of the NFL.

In a unanimous decision, the five members of the commission said that the rules, which ban cable and satellite companies from showing games blacked out on local broadcast channels, are out of date and hurt consumers.

“It’s a simple fact: the federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the games, period,” said Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The NFL requires local broadcast stations, such as CBS and Fox, to black out games that don't sell out. The FCC's old rules extended that blackout to cable or satellite companies by banning them from airing any game that is blacked out on local broadcast TV.

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The FCC regulations date back to 1975, when sports leagues feared that the rise of televised games would lead to a drop-off in ticket sales.

“This FCC rule, whatever sense it made in 1975, is completely obsolete and outdated, and simply empowers the NFL to keep fans in the dark and prevent them from watching games they deserve to see,” Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Tech: FCC chief downplays delay to TV box reforms | Lawsuit filed over internet transition | Waze rolls out ridehailing service Anti-trade senators say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP Leahy wants Judiciary hearing on Yahoo MORE (D-Conn.) told reporters ahead of the vote.

Even after the FCC move, the NFL can still make individual deals with cable and satellite providers to black out certain games. But supporters of the FCC’s action said that it was not the government’s place to side with the league against fans. 

“It takes a public policy finger off the scale of another future blackout,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat.

The vote is a major defeat for the NFL.

The multibillion-dollar league launched a concerted lobbying blitz to save the rules this summer, ahead of Tuesday’s vote. The league encouraged thousands of fans to voice their support for the rules and even brought on Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann to help with the public push.

Without the rules in place, the league had warned that it could be forced to move some games off free broadcast TV and onto channels that can only be picked up with a cable or satellite subscription.

Critics said the league was bluffing.

“There’s no way this can happen anytime soon,” argued Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican. “For one, the league’s major profits these days come from merchandise and TV revenues, not gate sales.”

Additionally, the NFL’s current contract with broadcaster networks won’t run out until 2022.

Switching its model so that fewer fans could watch games for free would be “cutting off its nose to spite its face,” Pai said.

After the vote, the NFL seemed to confirm that it had no plans to switch its model.

“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” the league said in a statement. “The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”

Blackouts of NFL games have been exceedingly rare in recent years. Last year, only two games were kept off the air.

The FCC’s action will not be immediate, and the rules could stay in place for much of the rest of the NFL season. The blackout rules won’t be taken off the books until 30 days after the action is published in the Federal Register, which could not be for a number of weeks, an FCC official said.

Tuesday’s vote was just the latest setback for the NFL in recent weeks.

The league has come under fire for its treatment of Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice, who punched his then-fiancé in a video that caused a firestorm when it was published online. Other instances of domestic violence, revelations about the rates of head injuries among professional football players and the ongoing controversy about the name of the Washington Redskins have put the NFL under the microscope.

These controversies appear unrelated to the FCC’s vote to get rid of the league's blackout rules. But David Goodfriend, a former aide in the Clinton administration and chairman of the Sports Fans Coalition, which lobbied to kill the rule, said it’s all part of the NFL's lack of accountability.

“When you have an organization that has been publicly subsidized for decades, that enjoyed nearly unchecked market power, that organization starts to behave arrogantly,” Goodfriend told The Hill.  

The league did not immediately comment on the FCC vote.

Critics of the league’s actions hoped that the vote could be just the beginning of changes at the NFL.

“The league is feeling some pressure today,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), whose hometown Buffalo Bills have been a target of blackouts in recent years.

The vote “provides additional leverage to get the league to do something that is fan friendly,” he said, such as committing not to black out games in the future.

Last year, Higgins and Blumenthal introduced a bill along with Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGOP lawmakers slam secret agreement to help lift Iran bank sanctions Kerry: US 'on the verge' of suspending talks with Russia on Syria Trump, Clinton to headline Al Smith dinner MORE (R-Ariz.) that would revoke the league’s exemptions to antitrust laws unless it ended the requirement that local broadcasters black out games. The bill would also make sure that any game that is blacked out is available for free on the Internet. 

The path forward for that bill is uncertain, given the narrow window in the lame-duck session of Congress.

But Blumenthal indicated that the measure could get tacked on to some “must-pass” bill during the remainder of this year’s session.

The issue is “coming to the fore at the right season and it will have tremendous impetus as a result of the FCC decision” he said. “If we can attach it to another bill, a must-pass bill — and there are some — we will see the opportunity.”  

—This post was last updated at 1:04 p.m.