NFL Claims Blackout Policy Ensures More Games are Televised

The football league tells the FCC that eliminating blackouts also will make the game less TV-friendly and that the regulatory agency doesn't actually have authority to change the rules.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

For the past 40 years, there's been a policy that if a home professional football team hasn't sold out tickets at least 72 hours prior to kickoff, the game is subject to a broadcast blackout. The rules also prevent cable and satellite companies from retransmitting a distant signal telecast if the local station isn't televising the same event.  The policy is political pigskin, kicked around by fans, lawmakers and TV companies everywhere.

Everyone has always assumed that the policy was meant to ensure great live attendance, but the National Football League is telling the Federal Communications Commission that the policy also ensures that games are televised.

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Late last year, the FCC proposed rules overhauling the blackout rule, and before the media regulatory agency takes a final vote, it has solicited comment from the public. Last week, the NFL quietly lodged its own comments with the FCC. The league isn't prepared to let the blackout rule die easily, saying that the system works well for the public and its fans. According to the NFL, "If ever there was a case of 'if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,' that applies here."

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The NFL has a couple of graphs to prove that. On the right, the league notes that of 256 regular season games last year, only two were blacked out. Of course, that was a pretty blackout-light year, but it doesn't stop the league from boasting that the number of blackouts has plunged 92 percent since 2003.

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Next, the NFL makes the argument that when Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, it "adopted the blackout provision not for the sake of protecting the gate in its own right, but instead for the purpose of promoting sports on broadcast television."

The league asserts that the rule was one of the big reasons why it was able to enter into exclusive contracts with broadcasters in the first place.

But the NFL goes even further by making the counterintuitive argument that blackouts are leading to more football games on television.

"Proponents of repeal rely on the entirely unsupported assumption that the commission’s sports blackout rule reduces the availability of professional sports on television," says the NFL. "To the contrary, over the long run the blackout rule actually increases the availability of sports games on television by encouraging broadcasters and professional sports leagues to reach deals for exclusive broadcast rights."

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How so? The NFL attempts to say that the blackout policy provides some sort of shortcut from negotiations with television networks, their affiliates, and cable and satellite companies. Without having to worry about live attendance, sports teams supposedly have what the NFL says is a "rational economic incentive to allow broadcasters to televise their games in the broadest way possible." The FCC is described as adopting the blackout rule in the mid-70s with the knowledge that cable companies pick up local programming.

"The commission’s conclusion in 1975 holds equally true today," says the NFL. "If cable and satellite carriers were permitted to circumvent the contracts between sports leagues and broadcasters, the eventual result likely would be a decrease in the amount of professional sports on broadcast television."

Got that? The NFL is basically saying that if the FCC goes ahead with its plan to curb the blackout rule, there will be less football games on television.

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Besides other eyebrow-raising points ranging from the blackout rule keeping ticket prices artificially low to it ensuring the television-friendly "packed stadium with a roaring crowd," the NFL strongly hints that the FCC should be prepared for a lawsuit if it goes with its proposal.

The NFL says, "Even if the commission were to determine that repealing the rule is in the public interest, it would not have the statutory authority to repeal the rule for satellite- and telephone-based video distributors, and such action would run counter to congressional recognition of blackouts in the SBA. In the past two decades, Congress has twice expressly required the commission to adopt sports blackout rules; in the absence of a congressional repeal of these statutes, the commission lacks authority to eliminate its sports blackout rules."

Here's the full filing.


Twitter: @eriqgardner