Time to sack the sports-TV blackout rule

By Features Consumer Reports

As the National Football League kicks off a new season, an old rule may be benched for good. Sports fans have long griped about TV blackouts of local games. The NFL and other professional leagues have policies that can prevent local TV stations from carrying games if the stadium fails to sell most or all tickets 72 hours in advance.

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Back in 1975, the Federal Communications Commission established a sports-blackout rule that said, if your local station can’t air the game, cable and satellite companies can't carry it locally. TV blackouts impact many sports, and the NFL stands out as one of the primary users—and aggressive defenders—of blackouts.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, thinks sports blackouts are outdated, unnecessary, anti-consumer, and anti-fan. In the 1970s, the justification was the league and team owners got most of their revenue from ticket sales, and not enough fans would buy tickets for games that aired on TV.

But we all know the sports business has changed dramatically in the last four decades. Leagues have found a multitude of ways to generate revenue beyond ticket sales. The idea that the rule is needed to drive fans to stadiums just doesn’t hold up anymore.

Momentum to curb sports blackouts is building. Late last year, the FCC announced it would consider getting rid of its rule, and a final vote could come this fall. Last month, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and U.S. Representative Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) spoke out against the rule in Buffalo, where Pai pointed out that, over the last four seasons, nine Buffalo Bills home games were blacked out for fans in western New York.

“Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners,” Pai said. “During my time at the FCC, I have consistently stressed the need to get rid of unnecessary regulations—of rules that have outlived whatever usefulness they once might have had, of rules that keep hard-working American consumers out of the end zone. The sports blackout rule is just such a rule.”

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Pai noted that taking the FCC rule off the books wouldn’t wipe out blackouts altogether. Leagues would still have room to negotiate private deals to prevent games from airing locally.

Consumers Union is pushing for bills in Congress introduced by Representative Higgins and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would eliminate antitrust exemptions for leagues to collectively negotiate deals to air games if their contracts include blackout provisions. The legislation would also encourage making local games available online, and ensure that games are not blacked out because of contractual disputes.

It’s time to eliminate these blackouts once and for all. The NFL is trying to mount a defense for these obsolete rules as the clock winds down, but we think it's clear that policymakers need to be playing on the side of consumers.

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