The NFL Loses a Rarely Used Weapon Against Its Own Fans: TV Blackouts

The Cincinnati Bengals vs. the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 1, 2013, in San Diego, a game that was subject to local blackouts from the NFL Photograph by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The era of the National Football League blackout is over. For the last several months, the league has begged the federal government to keep in place a regulation allowing it to keep off television any games not sold out at the stadium. On Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission ruled unanimously to allow cable and satellite companies to show games no matter how many tickets are sold.

Given the urgency the NFL brought to the debate over this issue, you’d think there would be some big changes afoot. You’d be wrong.

The graph below shows the percentage of NFL games that have been blacked out for each of the last 40 years. While football fans—especially those who have cheered for bad teams—were regularly blocked from watching broadcasts of their home team until the mid-1990s, the frequency of blackouts dropped precipitously over the last two decades. Last year the only contests subjected to local blackouts were a Week 13 matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers and a Week 16 game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills (a hard game to sell tickets to, considering temperatures in the 20s and one of the teams playing was the Bills).

Everyone thinks the lack of blacked-out games is a good thing. The FCC agreed with groups that said the number of blackouts proved the rule was unnecessary. The less regulation, the better, the regulators argued.

Strangely, the NFL and its allies also tried to use the low number of blackouts to bolster their cause. The league said the minuscule number of blackouts prove that there’s not a problem that needs solving. Almost all games appear on TV in the home markets of the teams involved. The threat of blackouts is at hand when needed to keep people going to games rather than staying at home and watching football the way it was meant to be watched: with copious amounts of onscreen graphics and un-insightful color commentary.

“This longstanding policy, though rarely invoked, promotes in-stadium attendance and fan engagement,” wrote lawyers for the NFL in a filing to the FCC in July. “Packed stadiums ensure a high-quality experience both for fans who attend games and who view the games on television.”

The doomsday scenario the league laid out if the FCC gets rid of the blackout rule? A move away from games on broadcast television. Instead, the NFL would be shown increasingly on cable, where those who decline to pay wouldn’t be able to watch at all. This was not a threat that could ever happen immediately, thanks to existing TV-distribution deals—and it’s not clear the threat will happen in the future, either.

A league spokesman on Tuesday seemed to acknowledge that the FCC had called the NFL’s bluff: “The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television,” Brian McCarthy wrote in an e-mail. “The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”

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