The FCC took a step that could impact the NFL and other leagues’ policies of blacking out games in local markets -– at least on paper. The FCC asked for public comment on whether it should eliminate a rule requiring cable and satellite operators to honor the blackouts that local stations abide by.
Five consumer groups, including the Sports Fans Coalition and Media Access Project, have asked the FCC to consider eliminating the rule, which mostly would affect the NFL, but apply to other leagues.
In the end, even if the FCC drops the rule, it’s unlikely to have much impact for viewers.
The NFL blacks out games in local markets if all general-admission tickets are not sold out 72 hours before kickoff. (The rule does not apply to suites and club seats.) Sixteen NFL games were blacked out this year, down from 26 last season. Blackout policies at Major League Baseball, NHL and the NBA do not involve attendance, but broadcast rights.
Regardless of what happens with the FCC move, comments are due by Feb. 13. Any policy change would not affect NFL blackouts on local broadcast stations.
Cable or satellite operators that want to carry games would have to go through a difficult process of getting the signal some other way.
The FCC change would not prevent the NFL from using muscle to nudge cable and satellite operators against moving in that direction, since it does business with just about all of them. DirecTV holds rights to “NFL Sunday Ticket,” while operators carry its Red Zone channel. (The same dynamic goes for other leagues’ relationships with programmers.)
An NFL representative said the blackout rule is “very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV.”
Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition, said the FCC rule is unnecessary. While his group would like the government to prevent all blackouts, it doesn’t “want the government to be in the business of sports.”
In order to succeed in preventing any blackouts, his group would have to persuade Congress to overturn antitrust rules that allow the blackouts on local broadcast stations. “That’s the long game here,” he said.
The Sports Fan Coalition in the past has received funding from Verizon and Time Warner Cable, which would like to be able to carry blacked-out games.
David Goodfriend, a board member of the Sports Fan Coalition, worked in public policy at Dish Network before starting his own firm, where he continues to work for the company. Dish has not contributed to the coalition.