What if they went all the way off?

NFL Gets Black Eye in Blackout Ruling

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The federal government fired a real shot at the National Football League today, with the Federal Communications Commission voting unanimously to end blackout restrictions. Under the previous rules, broadcasters were prevented from airing games in a home team's market if the stadium failed to sell out up to 72 hours before kickoff.

To be sure, the NFL is still free to negotiate television contracts that include blackout clauses. With this vote, however, the league can no longer hide behind federal regulation, and it could signal a shift in the historically cozy relationship between the government and professional football.

The NFL has been under intense scrutiny in the past few months after its mishandling of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals, leading to calls from the public and politicians to review the legal protections the league enjoys. Some lawmakers are pushing to end the league office's tax-exempt status, as well as the NFL's limited antitrust exemption in collectively negotiating broadcasting contracts. The so-called FANS Act, a bipartisan-sponsored bill, seeks to end the partial antitrust exemption that allows the league to privately negotiate blackout rules, in addition to ending Major League Baseball's total antitrust exemption.

While the FCC vote could mean that the recent pressure on the NFL might actually be more than political posturing a month before midterms, it's also an encouraging sign that the government is starting to wise up to the league's public-messaging juggernaut. This summer, the NFL launched a campaign called "Protect Football on Free TV," arguing that ending blackout restrictions would result in more games moving from network to cable television. It also argued that it would discourage fans from attending games.

But at the risk of getting a three-week suspension, I'll say of whomever came up with that campaign, "That dude is lying." For one, the NFL has already been shifting many of its games toward cable, from "Monday Night Football" on ESPN to Thursday night games on NFL Network. And as a group of sports economists told the FCC, "All four major national networks have a stake in protecting the value of their NFL television rights," while the NFL itself has gigantic incentive from its ad revenue to remain on network television. Furthermore, the group concluded, "Blackouts have no significant effect on ticket sales."

The NFL loves to hold the public hostage, spouting empty threats to scare fans into thinking their access to the game is in jeopardy in order to get what it wants, from blackout restrictions to stadium subsidies. For once, however, the government didn't buy it.

Let's hope it's a sign of things to come, that elected officials are taking on these issues beyond simply their stump speeches. Case in point: The fight to change the name of the Washington football team has been manipulated into a wedge issue that's resulted in little more than chest-thumping by politicians on both sides. But we could actually see some progress on that front -- the FCC is now looking into a petition to ban the name for violating its rules against televising indecent content.

Perhaps the blackout decision also means that we're beginning to finally see the NFL for what it is: A corporation that exploits public sentiment for profit with the help of misguided and obsolete government sanctions. Outdated laws aren't limited to sports in the U.S., and while they've become much more difficult to change, the heart of our legal system is evolution and adaptation. As with the blackout rules, the league's antitrust and tax exemptions date back to a time decades ago when the NFL was struggling to find its footing in the American sports landscape. That time has long since passed, and so, too, should any special protections afforded football.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net