NFL May Lose Treasured TV Blackout Rule

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FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is pushing for a Sept. 30 vote to repeal the policy of blacking out games in local markets if every seat isn't sold

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As if the NFL needed another problem.

In addition to the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals and criticism over player head injuries, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is pushing for a Sept. 30 vote to repeal a rule the league considers sacrosanct: blacking out games on TV in local markets if every seat isn't sold.

The so-called blackout rule was instituted four decades ago to protect owners from fans who chose to watch at home rather than attend games. But today, with the NFL the dominant sports league, very few games don't sell out (Wheeler estimates only two games last year triggered the rule). And TV rights, rather than ticket sales, now drive NFL revenue.

"The bottom line is the NFL no longer needs the government's help to remain viable," Wheeler wrote Sept. 9 in USA Today. "It's time to sack the sports blackout rules for good."

The broadcast networks support the league, even though Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society, says repealing the rule actually could benefit the NFL and its broadcast partners with higher ratings. Durbin says ego is in play, too: "There is an underlying fear that if you start showing big gaps in stadiums on TV, it's going to seem less like the important event the NFL brands it as." 

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