Let’s rid ourselves of the NFL’s policy on TV blackouts

Televising NFL games is a lucrative business. One of the policies of this business is for blackouts — the NFL imposes this very strict policy to ensure that stadiums are filled and sold out, to maximize telecast ratings, and to help leverage content on the networks. The league has imposed this policy since 1973. But if one organization representing fans of all sports has its way, that policy could be changed, or banned completely.

Simply stated, a home game cannot be televised locally (i.e., within a 75-mile radius, with some exceptions such as for Green Bay, San Diego, and San Francisco for which the area is larger) if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out locally, regardless of ticket sales. In those days, even Super Bowl games were blacked out in the game’s host city’s market.

This policy is enacted fairly often in some markets because of the lack of timely sellouts (or lack of sellouts altogether) — in the last two years, blackouts have occurred for games of the Chargers, Bills, Bucs, Bengals, Raiders, and Lions. However, this policy never enters the mind of fans of clubs that routinely sellout their home games, such as the Packers, Redskins, Broncos, Steelers, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Bears, Cowboys, and Patriots. None of those teams have had home games blacked out since 1993 — the first four teams listed have never had a blackout since the 1973 policy was enacted.

The reason the NFL moved from its former total blackout policy to the present form in 1973 was that Congress passed legislation requiring the 72-hour deadline. The league will sometimes alter the deadline to 48 hours or even 24 hours in the case of a near sellout, but blackouts are enacted much too often for the fan who for whatever reason will not attend their home team’s games.

An organized group of sports fans, known as the Sports Fans Coalition (SFC), has taken things into their own hands. Last year, Brian Frederick, the head of SFC, began meeting with commissioners of the FCC to get the blackout policy changed. Frederick and his group have been heard. Last week, the FCC agreed to review the NFL’s policy.

The petition submitted by the SFC and others argues that the blackout rule is perverse, “anti-consumer and anti-fan.” The group argues that in a time of persistently high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and consumer uncertainty,”even one blackout is too much.”

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell seems to agree. He told the Los Angeles Times last week this.

I am delighted that the Media Bureau is requesting comment on a petition seeking elimination of the commission’s rules that prohibit multichannel video programming distributors from carrying a sporting event in a community if it is blacked out by the local broadcast station.

According to Jason Notte of the publication The Street, you can issue your personal comments to the FCC from now through February 12. Those comments can be filed either through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System using the identifier MB Docket No. 12-3 or by on paper with that same identifier and sent to FCC Headquarters at 445 12th St. SW, Room TW-A325, Washington, DC 20554. Instructions for submitting comments are also provided by the SFC on their website.

I will be providing comments as I am a fan who lives in one of the ‘local media areas’ that has suffered blackouts for years. Personally, I think it is a backwards rule that instead of promoting interest in one of my local teams, tends to keep fans away from the stadium. And if I’m wrong about that reasoning, then think about this — the games for which the blackout rules apply are played in stadiums that were built with public funds, and for which the deprived fans have or still are paying for with their tax dollars.

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