The NFL is saying bye-bye to blackouts. At least for 2015.
No NFL games will be blocked from local television next season, the league said Monday at the owners' meetings. The teams voted for a one-year suspension of the long-standing blackout policy for the preseason and regular season.
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There were no blackouts last season, because the minimum number of tickets, by NFL sellout standards, was sold for every game, and the league had only two blackouts in 2013.
Still, the experiment is a huge step for the NFL, whose blackout policy dates back decades. In the 1970s, half of NFL games were blocked from local TV because the games did not sell enough tickets. Some teams — Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Oakland, St. Louis and San Diego — have struggled to avoid blackouts, and the league is taking a bit of a gamble for 2015.
The policy stipulates that a home game must be sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff in order to be televised locally. Often, that deadline is extended to ensure sellouts if a club believes it can meet the criteria for lifting the blackout.
The league's definition of a full house is not selling every seat but a large percentage of them, depending on the venue. The policy does not apply to suites or club seats.
Monday's move was met with immediate approval by one of the sponsors of legislation to eliminate the blackout permanently.
"This decision to suspend the blackout policy for the upcoming NFL season is a victory for the millions of sports fans and consumers across the country," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), "and it brings us one step closer to eliminating this anti-fan measure once and for all. This antiquated, anti-consumer rule has for too long served only to protect the NFL's bottom line at the expense of sports fans.
"I urge the FCC to take action to permanently remove the rule so that sports fans have the opportunity to cheer on their favorite teams, regardless of where they are watching."
Last September, the FCC repealed its sport blackout rules, denying reinforcement of the league's blackout policy. But the ruling did not affect the NFL's ability to maintain the blackout policy through existing broadcast contracts.
Blackouts have been a part of the NFL since the 1950s, when team owners believed showing local games would damage attendance. In 1973, the current league policy was put into action.
The league said it will evaluate the impact of the suspension after the season.
"The blackout issue has been one of those seen as a negative about the league," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp. "The FCC says there shouldn't be blackouts and the league says it would affect attendance. This is the perfect time, with no blackouts from last year, to test whether a no-blackout rule adversely affects the attendance at games."
NFL blackouts have declined dramatically in recent years, dipping to 40 percent in the 1980s, 31 percent in the 1990s, 8 percent in the 2000s, and 5 percent in this decade, according to league figures.
Part of that decrease is due to the league redefining what is a sellout, lowering the required number of tickets sold.
NBC and ESPN noted that their prime-time games have not been subjected to blackouts and wouldn't likely be affected by eliminating them. The Sunday afternoon games are more vulnerable; CBS said it would have no comment, and Fox did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
The NFL also announced it will stream the Oct. 25 game in London between Buffalo and Jacksonville on its website for free globally. The experiment, which will start at 9:30 a.m. ET, means the game won't be shown on television outside of the local teams' markets.
"That's a more significant move for the future than anything on blackouts," Ganis said, noting that live streaming of games would open up other avenues of revenue for a league that already is worth about $12 billion.
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