D.C. Weighs In On FCC Ejection of Sports Blackout Rules

Commissioners Team Up to Take Down Backstop for NFL Blackouts

The FCC's unanimous elimination of the Sports blackout Rules Tuesday (Sept. 30) drew immediate response from Washington players, including the commissioner voting to get rid of them.

Amidst the blitz of football metaphors, the commissioners made serious points about the need to get rid of the rules and stop backstopping the NFL's private contractual decisions.

"There is no better example of an FCC rule that has outlived its usefulness than our sports blackout rule," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "The FCC will not be complitic in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on television...I hope this leads to the elimination of sports blackouts altogether."

"Make no mistake about it. With this decision, the FCC is officially out of the sports blackout business. No longer will we be on the side of those willing to keep fans in the dark," said Commissioner Ajit Pai. "We are eliminating our blackout rule, but the professional sports leagues like the NFL can still choose to maintain their own blackout policies. But if the NFL in particular chooses that path, it will do so without the FCC’s endorsement and will have to enforce its policy without our help," he said.

"The goal of these rules was never to protect the profitability of sports leagues, but to ensure that America’s favorite pastime was widely available to television viewers," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "Keeping the rules no longer make sense." Clyburn teed up the rule elimination last fall as chairwoman.  

"This agency should not support policies that prevent fans from watching their hometown teams on television," said commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "To be clear, even as we remove our rules, we cannot guarantee an end to sports blackouts."

That is because blackouts can still be enforced by privately-negotiated contracts.  But I would hope that leagues that rely on this rule—namely the NFL—find a solution to avoid blackouts. If not, I think they will risk alienating existing fans and turning off would-be fans at a time when they cannot afford to do so."

"To argue that the number of blackouts is decreasing under the NFL’s newly constructed policy is irrelevant," aid Commissioner Michael O'Reilly, who suffered through blackouts as a fan of the Buffalo Bills. "The policy serves to punish entire communities for the fact that the collective citizens in those areas are unable or unwilling for legitimate reasons to sell-out the game that week. It is not the role of the Commission to ensure the NFL gets every last nickel out of each NFL game being played."    

“The sports blackout rule unfairly harms consumers by punishing fans in cities with large stadiums and declining populations,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who along with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) had been the leading voice for getting rid of the ban. "The FCC did the right thing today by removing this antiquated rule, which is no longer justified by facts or simple logic. Even as the NFL made millions upon millions of dollars off of broadcasting rights, they continued as recently as this season to threaten fans with unnecessary blackout restrictions. Today the FCC officially threw a flag on the NFL’s anti-fan blackout policy.”

“We’re pleased that our petition, the voices of sports fans and TV viewers, and the evidence has persuaded the FCC to act on the public’s behalf," said John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, which along with the Sports Fans Coalition, petitioned the FCC to ax the rules. "Private parties should not be able to use government regulations as an excuse to limit fans’ access to their local teams."

“It took bipartisan action to end this outdated rule. Although the entire Commission deserves praise for recognizing sports blackouts as anti-consumer, Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Pai should be singled out for their leadership.

“The NFL and broadcasters might still be able to use private contracts to restrict viewer access to programming, but it should be clear that these restrictions are driven by business considerations and not public policy. The NFL should take this opportunity to rethink its policy on blackouts entirely.”