John McCain Seeks To Eradicate The NFL’s Blackout Rule

By:  Jared Berman, Ruling Sports intern (Twitter:  @RealSportsNLaw)

Last month, Senator John McCain introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, which would thwart the NFL’s infamous blackout rule. The blackout rule, which dates back to the 1950’s, stringently requires a game be at least 85% sold out on non-premium seats (i.e. box suites) 72 hours before kickoff; otherwise the game is not televised in the teams’ local market. Last season, the rule effectively blacked out fans for fifteen games, the brunt of which was felt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ fans that were denied six games, including their season opener. The NFL justifies the rule, insisting that it promotes ticket sales and the overall stadium experience.[1] However, McCain, like many NFL fans, fails to see the connection.

In fact, McCain’s bill is not the first attempt to reform sports blackouts. On February 13, 2012, five U.S. senators (Blumenthal, Harkin, Stabenow, Brown, and Lautenberg) petitioned the FCC asserting the league’s blackout rules harm the fans. The senators pointed out that the blackout rule makes little sense, in light of our country’s struggling economy weighed against the rising prices of tickets, because for many fans, attending a football game is an “unaffordable luxury.”[2] Surely, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a father spends his week working hard to provide for his family, in hopes of watching his favorite NFL team on Sunday with his son­­­­–the same football team he used to watch with his father, only to discover the game is blacked out.

In a plea for the fans, McCain’s bill asks for the removal of the blackout rule for any team whose stadium was funded with taxpayer money. “When the venue in which these sporting events take place has been the beneficiary of taxpayer funding, it is unconscionable to deny those taxpayers who paid for it the ability to watch the games on television when they would otherwise be available,” he said, via the Los Angeles Times.

McCain’s argument is a compelling one, regardless of ones’ political allegiance because it does not affect privately financed stadiums. However, the bill addresses much more than the NFL blackout rule and therefore, its implementation by the House and Senate may rest on the reception of its core (which will be influenced by NFL lobbyists).

The NFL receives a cut of the profit from each ticket that a team sells for its games.  As such, the NFL uses the blackout rule as a tool to promote ticket sales and increase its revenue. Often it works, because the local station that plans on televising that game will buy-out the remaining tickets to ensure the broadcast, and ultimately help its ratings.  In addition, it is in the NFL’s best interest to broadcast games with the roar of a sold-out crowd, because it makes for more entertaining television.

On the other hand, it is time that the NFL refocuses its efforts on television contracts and not put such a heavy emphasis on ticket sales. Make no mistake, ticket sales are vital to an NFL team’s economic success, but not at the price of blacking out the game and losing revenue from commercial sponsors. In today’s sports world the fans watching the Buffalo Bills are not limited to the northeast region, but also reside in California, Texas, and even Alaska. Indeed, many fans are only watching as “fantasy fans,” who watch every NFL game to keep track of their fantasy football team’s players’ statistics. These fans will never be influenced by the NFL’s blackout rule, because attending the game is geographically undesirable and arguably, economically impossible.

It will only be a matter of time until McCain’s bill, or one like it, will pass and destroy the blackout rule once and for all. The issue is really gaining momentum and public opinion undoubtedly supports the rule’s destruction. Perhaps this is one time where Republicans and Democrats can come together, since McCain is leading the charge and President Obama notoriously enjoys sports.


[1] Assael, Shaun. “NFL Fans Blacked Out, Riled up.” ESPN.com. Disney, 18 Sept. 2012.

[2] United States Senate. (2012, February 12). Letter to FCC for reformation of blackout rule. http://espn.go.com/pdf/2012/0918/espn_otl_Doc%201-%20Senate%20Letter%20to%20FCC.pdf

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