It took a while, but the FCC today finally voted — unanimously — to end its sports blackout rules, following up on the rulemaking notice it issued in December. They were adopted in 1975 primarily to help broadcasters and the NFL by barring cable and satellite services from offering games in the teams’ markets if the stadium isn’t sold out. That’s a rarity these days: Only two games were blacked out last season. And even without the FCC rules, the NFL can cut deals that black out certain games.
Still, many consumer groups and pay TV providers lobbied for change arguing that the blackout rules had become anachronistic, and inappropriate. The FCC acted “on the public’s behalf,” Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer says. “Private parties should not be able to use government regulations as an excuse to limit fans’ access to their local teams.” The National Cable and Telecommunications Association called the rules “antiquated” and urged the FCC “to continue its examination of outdated rules that no longer make sense.”
The FCC noted today that when the rules were adopted ticket sales accounted for most of the NFL’s revenues, and most games didn’t sell out. Now, due to its lucrative television deals, the NFL “is the most profitable sports league in the country, with $6 billion in television revenue per year.” Commissioners also figure that since the NFL’s broadcast contracts run through 2022, it “is unlikely to move its games from free, over-the-air broadcast television to satellite and cable pay TV as a result of elimination of the sports blackout rules.”
When the FCC indicated that it planned to eliminate the rules, the National Association of Broadcasters warned that a change “may hasten the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms, and will disadvantage the growing number of people who rely on free, over-the-air television as their primary source for sports.”