Less than a year into his tenure as chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, Tom Wheeler has announced that at the end of the month, the FCC will vote on killing the 39-year-old rule mandating local blackouts for NFL games that don't sell out.
The sports blackout rules are a bad hangover from the days when barely 40 percent of games sold out and gate receipts were the league's principal source of revenue. Last weekend, every single game was sold out. More significantly, pro football is now the most popular content on television. NFL games dominated last week's ratings, as usual, and the Super Bowl has effectively become a national holiday. With the NFL's incredible popularity, it's not surprising that last year the League made $10 billion in revenue and only two games were blacked-out. [Ed. note: One in San Diego and one in Buffalo.]
But the NFL's blackout policy remains a real concern for fans. During last year's playoffs, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Indianapolis hadn't sold out their games 72 hours before kickoff. The only way those games weren't denied to fans was that local businesses bought blocks of tickets just so the game could be officially "sold out."
The most egregious case was in Green Bay, where the weather forecast called for a low of minus-15 degrees. Despite decades of unbelievable fan support and loyalty – Green Bay had sold out every regular season game since 1959 – local Packer fans were effectively told that if more people didn't buy tickets to go freeze, the rest of the community wouldn't be able to watch the game on TV.
Today, we are blowing the whistle on this anti-fan practice.
The NFL is, as you'd expect, fighting against any lifting or relaxation of the blackout rule, even though FCC action would not remove the possibility of the league negotiating blackouts into its TV contracts. In July, the league dispatched its full-time lobbyist Ken Edmonds and counsel for both the NFL and the NFLPA to meet with FCC commissioners. NFL representatives argued that the current blackout system "clearly serves the public interest."
Former player Lynn Swann has also been hired as part of the NFL's PR blitz, and has said that blackouts "help to keep NFL games available to every viewer on free, broadcast television."
(The NFL's vague threat seems to be that if it loses the ability to enforce blackouts, it will no longer put its games on network TV. Which would never happen, so you can ignore anything the NFL says about this.)
The FCC vote is on Sept. 30, so by season's end, fans should feel comfortable staying the hell home and watching their teams from the comfort of their couches. Wheeler gets the last word:
The bottom line is the NFL no longer needs the government's help to remain viable. And we at the FCC shouldn't be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV. It's time to sack the sports blackout rules for good.