Five months ago, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and I stood in the lobby of Upshaw Place, the NFLPA's headquarters in downtown Washington. Smith had just come from one of the countless negotiating sessions with the NFL. Smith had sought me out after the chair of Sports Fans Coalition and I wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Smith asking that fans be represented in the negotiations. He praised the letter and said we had made some good points. (Goodell, the NFL's Washington office, and the numerous public relations firms they have on retainer ignored our letter.)
I told Smith that what I'd really love to see is the end of the NFL's blackout rule. The rule punishes fans who cannot afford to go to the games or are physically unable to go to the games and it's unethical because fans have already paid for the stadiums. (Not to mention being totally counterproductive to building a fan base, particularly kids.)
"I see no reason why we can't write that in [to a new collective bargaining agreement]," Smith told me. "There's no need for it. I've seen the numbers from the television revenues."
I left with a sense of optimism that at least one side in the ongoing NFL labor negotiations gave a damn about the fans.
Fast forward to mid-July, when the NFL and NFLPA are on the verge of reaching an agreement. Think that new agreement will include an end to the blackout rule?
Yeah, me neither.
So we're left knowing that the NFL needlessly punishes fans with its blackout rule and that despite knowing this, the NFL Players Association is likely unwilling to fight for fans on the issue.
Certainly, including language eliminating the blackout rule in the new CBA would be a great public relations move for the NFL after putting its fans through nearly six months of a grueling lockout. And it would be an acknowledgement that fans and taxpayers have contributed greatly to make this game what it is. The public has contributed at least $6.5 billion on NFL stadiums around the country.
But since that's unlikely to happen, Sports Fans Coalition has asked the FCC to examine the issue. In formal comments filed with the FCC in May, we simply asked the agency to reconsider its own rules on blackouts. We believe that for decades the FCC has needlessly been enforcing blackout rules under the mistaken assumption that this is what Congress wanted of them. We have shown them this is not the case. So we asked the agency to just have another look at the issue, particularly given all the forms of media via which fans can watch games.
The NFL freaked out.
In a formal response filed in late June, the NFL attacked Sports Fans Coalition and actually argued that blackouts are in the best interests of the fans. The NFL basically said that the league would fall apart if the FCC's sports blackout rule was amended. HA! As if.
When a new labor agreement is finally reached, likely in the next few weeks, fans should demand of the NFL and NFLPA, and the sports media, if there is anything in the agreement that specifically benefits fans, like the elimination of the blackout rule.
If the NFL (and NFLPA) are unwilling to take care of ending the absurd, archaic and unethical practice of blacking out games on its own, Sports Fans Coalition will continue to fight the fight here in Washington. Someone has to shine a light on the dirty business of sports.