Blackouts have long frustrated sports fans, but never have they had a better chance to actually do something to end blackouts. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a major step that could have huge implications for sports fans around the country. The agency is asking for public comments on a petition filed by Sports Fans Coalition and other public interest groups asking for the FCC to eliminate its sports blackout rule, which has been on the books since the mid-1970s. In essence, the FCC is opening up a conversation about sports blackout rules.
Before proceeding, it's important to draw a distinction between league blackout rules and the FCC's blackout rule. Basically, professional sports leagues have their own blackout rules that determine what games local broadcasters can show. The most obvious example of league rules are the NFL's policy that games have to be sold out within 72 hours of kickoff or the game will be blacked out in the local market. (The most convoluted example of league rules are those of Major League Baseball.)
The FCC's blackout rule props up these league blackout rules by also prohibiting cable and satellite carriers from carrying a game if local broadcasters are prohibited from doing so. This is why a fan in Cincinnati who cannot see the game on local television still cannot see the game even if he has DirecTV's Sunday Ticket, which is supposed to carry every NFL game.
The FCC's rule was written nearly four decades ago, when the media landscape was far different and when leagues were far more dependent upon gate receipts. In comments Thursday, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell acknowledged these factors in a written statement:
Taking a fresh look at this 36-year-old rule could be constructive as we look for rules to streamline and modernize. Over almost four decades, the economics and structure of both the sports and communications industries have experienced dramatic evolutions. We now live in a world with not only local broadcast stations, but also cable, satellite, the Internet and wireless, and where television and merchandizing revenues exceed ticket sales. It is appropriate for us to re-examine the rule in light of marketplace changes.
McDowell is exactly right when he says that the "sports and communications industries have experienced dramatic evolutions" since the agency adopted its blackout rule. Simply consider the fact that ESPN did not even exist at the time the agency last carefully considered blackouts. Crazy!
The FCC's last comprehensive review of sports blackouts took place in 1976, following a three-year federal law stating that games could not be blacked out unless the stadium wasn't sold out. Prior to the 1973 law, all NFL games were blacked out, regardless of attendance. This frustrated the nation's First Fan, President Richard Nixon, who pushed Congress to end the blackouts. The result was a three-year ban, during which time the FCC closely monitored the effect on game attendance. Here's how Stephen Lowe, author of The Kid on the Sandlot: Congress and Professional Sports, 1910-1992, describes the results of the FCC's study:
The FCC's 1976 report declared that the law was not harmful in any way to professional football. On the contrary, greater television exposure had spawned greater fan interest, which had actually led to higher attendance at the stadium, not an increase in the number of no-shows. The report concluded that the antiblackout law had been "beneficial" not only to the fans, but to professional sports as well.
It should come as no surprise to anyone (but an NFL owner) that the best way to build a loyal fan base is to (treat them with respect and) allow them to actually see their local team. Less visible team, less interest.
Regardless of what action the FCC ultimately takes, their interest in opening a conversation will also have several other important benefits. First, the leagues are going to have to spell out and justify their own blackout policies. Second, if the NFL or any other league really needs every last dollar from gate receipts, they are going to have to provide financial data to prove it, which they will not want to do. Third, even if the leagues refuse to provide internal figures, the economics of professional sports in America will be clearer to everyone. That means discussing how ticket prices, personal seat licenses, stadium subsidies, antitrust-exempted television contracts, etc., all contribute to the leagues' profits while costing fans and taxpayers billions.
Of course, sports fans would rather that the leagues just changed their own blackout policies, but they steadfastly refuse to do so. And it should be noted that in this case, it's the sports leagues who are asking for special treatment from the government to black out fans. Fans are simply asking why the government needs to enforce blackouts.
So the FCC's actions last week are a major victory for sports fans, but the war against blackouts is far from over. For the next month, fans will have the opportunity to speak up about blackouts and actually be heard. (You can do so here.) But it's going to continue to be a tough fight. The NFL and the other leagues will likely spend lots of money trying to keep the FCC's rule on the books. They want to continue the same old blackout rules of the 1970s. Back then, the leagues and media companies were the only ones in the room when the rules were written. But now, fans have an organization with some teeth fighting for them.