Fan group optimistic FCC will review National Football League blackout rule

A coalition representing sports fans is optimistic the Federal Communications Commission will review a decades-old rule that allows the National Football League to ban television providers from carrying home games locally.

The Sports Fan Coalition filed a petition for Rulemaking with the FCC last week urging the agency to end its local sports blackout rule adopted in 1975 at the request of the sports leagues and broadcasters.

The NFL's policy bans local broadcast stations within 75 miles of stadiums from showing games that aren't sold out. The FCC's rule prohibits cable, satellite, Internet and other providers in the same area from carrying the blacked-out games. Eight games had been blacked out this season as of last week, while the last two seasons saw 26 and 23 blackouts respectively.

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Sports Fan Coalition executive director Brian Frederick told Hillicon on Sunday the rule is unfair to fans in economically depressed areas that support publicly-financed stadiums through their tax dollars but are left unable to watch their home team.

"It's completely unethical to not allow [fans] to see the games," Frederick said, pointing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the prime example. Four of the team's eight home games have been blacked out on local TV this year, despite playing in a $168.5 million stadium funded by taxpayers.

Ordinarily teams facing the threat of a blackout turn to local businesses and media organizations to help sell or giveaway remaining tickets. Closing off sections of seats with tarps has also been used to reduce stadium capacity, since some NFL stadiums seat roughly 100,000 people.

But Frederick said the Buccaneers, under the ownership of the Glazer family, have made no effort to fight local blackouts this season. He noted the average NFL ticket now costs $77, a significant expense for fans during the ongoing recession.

"There's a simple solution: if fans aren't going to the games, lower ticket prices. There's no reason for leagues to have these ticket prices that keep fans out," Frederick said, adding that the blackout rule is actually counter-productive for teams looking to build a younger fanbase.

"That's the core behind our mission, these owners are taking in so much in public resources, they're socializing the costs but privatizing the profits."

Frederick expressed optimism the FCC would being the issue up for public comment, noting there has been no significant effort to overturn the rule since its adoption.

"This is something that's existed for far too long without scrutiny," Frederick said. He said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski admitted he is just learning about the issue after the Coalition briefed all of the Commissioners.

"The rules were created 40 years ago, why not just have a public conversation about it to see if they should still apply."

There appears to be support on the Hill for the effort, though many lawmakers are leery of upsetting the NFL, which has spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying this year.

Like the other three major sports leagues (Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association), the NFL holds an antitrust exemption from Congress, which Frederick said could be a powerful bargaining chip.

Frederick suggested the league's owners could submit their financial data to prove the rule is crucial for creating revenue, but predicted they would be unlikely to do so. He also framed the effort as part of a larger bid to rid the government of burdensome regulations.

"So much of what the Obama administration is trying to do is get rid of outdated regulations," Frederick said. "This is a perfect example, there's no reason for this rule to exist."