U.S. FCC Proposes Ending Sports Blackout Rule for Pay TV

The National Football League said it “will strongly oppose” a proposal by U.S. regulators to eliminate the rule that keeps cable providers and satellite broadcasters from showing sports events lacking sellout crowds.

The blackout rule, crafted almost 40 years ago to promote live attendance, may no longer be necessary to ensure the public can see games, the Federal Communications Commission said yesterday in an e-mailed notice. Eliminating the rule would require the agency’s vote after a public comment period.

“We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “The blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”

McCarthy said there had been one blackout, and today the Buffalo Bills in an e-mailed news release said their Dec. 22 home game against the Miami Dolphins will be blacked out because about 15,000 tickets remain unsold.

Professional football is the sport most affected by blackouts, the FCC said. Under NFL policy, TV broadcasts of home games in a team’s home territory are blacked out if the game isn’t sold out 72 hours in advance. The FCC rule was designed to protect home gate receipts from “invading telecasts” from distant TV stations, the agency said.

Pay-TV Migration

“The leagues and the teams have a strong interest in promoting attendance at home games,” Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president and founder of Pilson Communications, which advises teams and leagues, said in an e-mail. “If the game is available on TV, some people will elect to stay home and watch.”

The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the National Association of Broadcasters also oppose eliminating the rule, the FCC said.

Ending the FCC rule “may hasten the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms,” Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the broadcasters group, said in an e-mailed statement. Letting pay-TV display games denied to local stations would erode broadcasters’ economic base, Wharton said.

Leagues still could require local stations to black out games if the FCC eliminates its rules, leaving consumers that rely on over-the-air signals without coverage, the agency said.

The FCC in January asked for comments on a petition filed by five groups that said the rule “supports blatantly anti-fan, anti-consumer behavior.”

Dish Lobbyist

One of the five was the Sports Fans Coalition, founded by David Goodfriend, a Washington-based attorney who was a registered lobbyist for satellite-television provider Dish Network Corp. as of Sept. 30, according to Senate records.

The coalition accepts funding from the American Television Alliance, which says it opposes program blackouts in fee disputes with broadcasters and lists members including satellite-TV providers DirecTV, Dish and second-largest U.S. cable company Time Warner Cable Inc.

“We got the NFL to treat fans better” by “shining a light on this practice,” Goodfriend said in an interview.

The FCC said it received more than 7,500 comments on the petition from individuals who support elimination of the rules. Some consumers said they were disabled or elderly and physically unable to attend games. Others said they couldn’t afford tickets, the agency said in its notice.

Ticket Prices

“Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, said in an e-mailed message.

In 1974, just before the FCC adopted its rule, 59 percent of regular-season NFL games were blacked out, the FCC said. During the 2011 league season, 16 of 256 regular-season games were blacked out, and those occurred in just four markets: Buffalo, New York; Cincinnati; San Diego, and the Tampa Bay area in Florida, the FCC said.

Five U.S. senators last year called on the NFL to stop blackouts. The senators, all Democrats, who signed a letter to the FCC included Sherrod Brown of Ohio, where six of the Cincinnati Bengals’ eight home games in the 2011 season were blacked out.

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