The FCC’s Elimination Of The Sports Blackout Rule Isn’t A Touchdown For NFL Fans

News out of Washington, D.C. today may have given NFL fans in San Diego and Buffalo a sigh of relief. NFL teams in those cities were the only two teams during the 2013 season to face local television blackouts of games. Today, the FCC announced the repeal of sports blackout rules that were enacted nearly forty years ago. While the word “repeal” coupled with the words “sports blackout rule” would seemingly signal good news for fans whose teams face television blackouts, such isn’t necessarily the case.

Under the FCC’s sports blackout rules, cable and satellite television providers were forbidden from airing sports events that were blacked out on local television stations. Notably, the rules had no reign over local television stations’ blackouts of sporting events. Rather, individual leagues–not the FCC–instituted rules related to when games for their respective sport would be blacked out on local television.

Arguably, the league with the most stringent and well-known local television blackout policy is the NFL. Under the NFL’s blackout policy, if a home team doesn’t sell out 85-percent of its stadium within 72-hours of kickoff, the game will be blacked out within 75-miles of the stadium’s radius. Notably, the NFL is the only league whose local blackout rule centers around stadium attendance. Under the NHL and MLB’s policies, local broadcasters receive broadcasting priority, unless a national broadcaster has exclusive rights to the game. As for the NBA, if a game is aired on NBATV, it will be blacked out from local broadcasting stations within a 35-mile radius of the home team’s market.

What, then, is the effect of today’s unanimous vote by the FCC to repeal its sports blackout rules? The result is that now, cable and satellite providers may air games blacked out by leagues on local television networks without interference by the FCC. The question becomes, though, what is the likelihood that networks will bite at the chance to do this? Due to current contractual obligations outlined between leagues and local networks and cable and satellite providers, the likelihood is slim. Add to that the fact that the NFL and other leagues’ lawyers are most likely renegotiating their contracts with cable and satellite providers to limit those parties’ abilities to air blacked out games after today’s FCC ruling, and the likelihood is nearly non-existent. Couple both of these factors with the bargaining power that the leagues have in negotiating television contracts and the likelihood evaporates.

So, then, was any victory gained by fans as a result of today’s FCC ruling? Perhaps. The FCC’s decision sent a clear message to the NFL and other leagues that the agency will no longer enforce rules to protect attendance figures at their teams’ stadiums. This is notable, as a consistent rationale the NFL has levied for its blackout rule is that without it, stadium attendance would decrease. The timing of the FCC’s decision may signal why the agency is suddenly unwilling to continue being a silent endorser of the NFL’s blackout rule. It was all the way back in January 2012 that the FCC announced that it was seeking comment on the petition which led to today’s decision. Arguably, the FCC could have issued its ruling much in advance of today. Thus, there perhaps exists an argument that the current climate surrounding the NFL–from the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson suspensions to the Redskins name debate and concussion litigation–finally motivated the FCC to pull the plug on its sports blackout rules.

Whatever the reasoning, though, the effect of today’s decision will be limited. That is, unless a cable or satellite provider is willing to stand in the face of the NFL and air blacked out games regardless of the NFL’s local blackout rule. However, given the high value of the NFL’s broadcasting rights–it’s three years into a $27-million, nine-year deal with Fox , NBC and CBS–and the league’s high viewership numbers–205-million fans tuned in during the 2013 season–the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. Thus, if fans in San Diego and Buffalo want to guarantee seeing their team’s home games, the best plan of action even after the today’s FCC decision is to buy tickets and head to the stadium.

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