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Feds Unanimously Kill Sports Blackout Rules (Video)

If games are blacked out now, it won't be because of federal rules anymore, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday.

Jonathan G / Shutterstock

Federal officials killed the nearly 40-year-old rules Tuesday that kept some football fans from watching local teams on TV when stadiums don’t sell out.

“It’s a simple fact the federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the game,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Tuesday, adding that team owners have hidden behind federal rules for long enough. “It is the leagues that control whether sports fans can watch the games they want to watch. If there are blackouts next weekend or Monday night or Thursday night … it will be the decision of the league and its team owners, without the participation of the federal government.”

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency’s “archaic sports blackout policies” made more sense 40 years ago, when team owners made much of their revenue from ticket and concession sales. Now, NFL teams make most of their revenue from the sale of broadcast and digital rights to air their games.

Blackouts are relatively rare, partly because local businesses tend to buy up tickets at the last minute to make sure the games are broadcast. Last year, NFL fans in Green Bay and Indianapolis both faced the threat of blackout of playoff games because of a lack of ticket sales.

The rules apply to all sports broadcasts but mostly affect NFL games that air on local TV stations. The sports blackout rule prevents cable and satellite TV providers from importing a game from a distant station if the local TV station is barred from airing the game because the stadium didn’t sell out.

Team owners are finding it harder to attract fans to the games as the cost of attending has steadily risen. Also, more people are opting to watch games on their big-screen TVs at home. Last year, the average cost of attending a San Francisco 49ers game for a family of four was $641, according to Team Marketing Report, which tracks game costs.

“Most fans can barely afford to park at a football game,” much less attend these extravaganzas, said Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic FCC commissioner.

While the sports blackout rule is dead, that doesn’t necessarily mean all NFL fans will always be able to watch their local team play. Broadcasters are still barred from airing games if the local stadium doesn’t sell out in time. And while cable and satellite TV providers can now import a signal from another distant station, that effort could be thwarted if the NFL bans such practices in future broadcast contracts.

Broadcasters and the National Football League protested the FCC’s move, which was widely expected, saying that the rules help incentivize fans to go to games. Without the ability to blackout local broadcasts, the NFL warned that games could soon move to cable channels instead of airing on free local over-the-air stations.

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