The FCC voted unanimously today to wipe out their sports blackout rules. The rules, most commonly invoked by the NFL, prevented cable and satellite companies from airing games if a certain percentage of stadium tickets to the game went unsold.
The NFL has invoked the FCC rule for years in their defense of their blackout policies. The league can still choose to enforce blackout policies going forward, but they can’t use FCC rules as their reason.
“For 40 years, these teams have hidden behind a rule of the FCC. No more,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Everyone needs to be aware who allows blackouts to exist and it is not the Federal Communications Commission… I hope the NFL will seize on this opportunity to repudiate blackouts just like we’re about to repudiate the blackout rule here.”
The NFL has tried to convince fans for years that the blackout rules keep ticket prices down and prevent the league from moving games to premium tv channels. A team of economists told the FCC commission that there is zero evidence to support those claims.
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“By moving games to pay-TV, the NFL would be cutting off its nose to spite its face,” FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said. “Television contracts—not gate receipts—make up a substantial majority of the NFL’s revenues nowadays. And professional football is, by far, America’s most popular sport in part because it is the only major sport that makes most games available on free, over-the-air television.”
The NFL still has the right to enforce blackout policies going forward. Whatever the league negotiates with cable companies in private contracts is fair game.
“We cannot guarantee an end to sports blackouts. That is because blackouts can still be enforced by privately negotiated contracts,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “But I would hope that leagues that rely on this rule, namely the NFL, find a way to avoid blackouts.”