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Despite NFL Objections, Sports Blackouts May Soon Be Thing of the Past

FCC Chairman tees up vote to kill rule that blacks out NFL games when home stadiums don’t sell out.

Jonathan G / Shutterstock

Football fans may soon be able to watch local NFL games even if the home stadium doesn’t sell out, thanks to federal regulators who are planning to kill a nearly 40-year-old rule allowing game blackouts.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said the so-called “sports blackout” rule is obsolete and needs to go, in a USA Today editorial Tuesday.

The rules “are a bad hangover from the days when barely 40 percent of games sold out and gate receipts were the league’s principal source of revenue,” Wheeler wrote. Now, the NFL makes the majority of its revenue from selling broadcast rights to games.

“The bottom line is the NFL no longer needs the government’s help to remain viable. And we at the FCC shouldn’t be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV. It’s time to sack the sports blackout rules for good.”

Wheeler has scheduled a vote on killing the sports blackout rule at the FCC’s Sept. 30 meeting. It’s expected to pass, since Wheeler has support from the FCC’s two Republican commissioners on the five-member board.

The rule is a relic of the ’70s, when sports leagues and broadcasters convinced the agency to bar cable providers from airing games when a local TV station is also barred from showing them because a local stadium didn’t sell out. The rule was supposed to encourage fans to attend games.

The rule ended up mostly affecting NFL games, and in recent years, many communities have only been able to avoid having local games blacked out by having local businesses buy up and distribute tickets at the last minute.

Broadcasters and the NFL have been trying to convince the FCC to keep the rule in place. TV station owners don’t want cable or satellite TV providers to show a local NFL game they aren’t allowed to air. And team owners want to keep encouraging fans to buy tickets to games, which has been a struggle over the past few years as the average cost of attendance has risen and large HDTV screens have made the home viewing experience better for fans.

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