The Federal Com-munications Commission wants to eliminate its almost 40-year-old sports blackout rules, which serve primarily to prevent NFL games being televised in markets where the home team failed to sell out the stadium.
In a notice of proposed rule-making released Thursday, the FCC said the sports marketplace has “changed dramatically” and that the “economic rationale underlying the sports blackout rules may no longer be valid.”
Adapted in 1975, the blackout rules were designed to prevent pay-TV distributors, including cable and satellite operators, from circumventing agreements between sports leagues and television rights holders regarding the blacking-out of games that were not sold out.
At the time the rule was introduced, NFL teams’ primary source of revenue was from ticket sales, and there were concerns that if games that were not sold out were shown on television, it could encourage fans to stay home.
Now the bulk of revenues for the teams comes from TV and merchandise. Also, blackouts have become a thing of the past. According to the FCC, in 1974 — the year before the blackout rules took effect — 59 percent of regular season games were blocked in local markets. Last year, according to the NFL, only 6 percent of games were blacked out. This season, only one game has been blacked out.
The NFL and the National Association of Broadcasters, the chief lobbying arm for the television industry, want to keep the rules in place.
“We will strongly oppose any change in the rule. While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds,” a spokesman said.
The broadcasters association said it feared that removing the blackout rules could lead to even more sports migrating exclusively to the world of pay-television.
“Allowing importation of sports programming on pay-TV platforms while denying that same programming to free broadcast-only homes would erode the economic base of local television and hinder broadcasting as an engine for economic growth in local communities,” said a spokesman for the broadcasters association.
While the blackout provisions are typically in all sports contracts, they usually apply only to over-the-air broadcast television and not pay-TV. Since the majority of baseball, hockey and basketball games are on cable, the blackout issue primarily applies to football.
The FCC will seek comments from all interested parties, and a final decision likely won’t be reached until next spring at the earliest.
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