FCC votes down the 'blackout rule.' Will the NFL stop showing free games?

The FCC voted unanimously to end its support of the NFL's blackout rule, a decades-old provision that keeps games with poor ticket sales off network TV. Before the FCC ruling, the NFL had suggested that ending the blackout rule could hasten its move to being solely accessible on pay-TV. 

Gregory Bull/AP/File
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles tries to get clear of San Diego Chargers nose tackle Sean Lissemore during the second half of a game in San Diego. The FCC voted unanimously on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, to vote down the NFL's blackout rule, a decades-old restriction that prevents free broadcasts of games with poor ticket sales.

It’s hard being a fan of one of the NFL’s lesser teams – your Jacksonville Jaguars, hypothetically. Ginning up the enthusiasm for loss after loss; resigning yourself to never, ever being able to watch your team on network television if you live outside the local market; enduring the pitying looks from your Patriots-fan co-workers (again, hypothetical). Even if you live in your team’s city, tepid fan interest and low ticket sales mean games constantly face the threat of staying off TV altogether due to the NFL’s “blackout rule.” But at least one of those things is changing.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), television’s governing body, voted unanimously Tuesday to end its support of the NFL’s blackout rule, a nearly 40-year-old restriction that bans local broadcasts from carrying games that don’t sell out in the stadium. The idea is to prevent fans from getting games over a free broadcast when not enough people are buying tickets for the game. But the rule effectively prevents cable and satellite carriers from showing the games as well. 

The FCC voted to drop it because the NFL, far and away the most profitable sports league in the country, no longer relies on ticket sales to survive. “The sports blackout rules are no longer justified in light of the significant changes in the sports industry since these rules were first adopted nearly forty years ago,” the FCC explained in a release announcing the vote. “At that time, ticket sales were the primary source of revenue for the NFL and most NFL games failed to sell out. Today, television revenues have replaced ticket sales as the NFL’s main source of revenue, and blackouts of NFL games are increasingly rare."

The league made about $6 billion in TV revenue alone last year, and only two games out of 256 were blacked out during the regular season.

The NFL is the only major sports league with such a provision, but blacked out games have become a relative rarity for a few reasons. Despite falling a bit in recent years, ticket sales and in-game attendance have been robust for decades. Last season, the Oakland Raiders had the lowest average attendance of any NFL team but still averaged about 80 percent attendance per game. The blackout restrictions themselves have relaxed in various ways over the years: Sales of tickets in luxury boxes and premium club sections don’t count, and the league stopped requiring total sellouts in 2012.

Teams, too, have found ways to get around the rule. The Jaguars, for example, have long closed off several of the sections in their home stadium to make it easier to sell out games in one of the NFL's smallest media markets. Other teams have arrangements with TV stations or local business to sell remaining tickets at a discounted rate in order to avoid a looming blackout.

In any case, Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t mean that Jaguars and Raiders fans are off the hook just yet. The NFL can still arrange with its TV partners to keep the blackout rules in place; it just no longer has the federal government’s backing. “The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television,” the league said in a statement following the ruling. “The FCC's decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future."

The FCC vote is just the latest in a series of government moves that are pressuring the NFL to change the way it does business. In June, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled six trademarks held by the Washington Redskins franchise, arguing that the nickname was offensive to native Americans. In the wake of scandals surrounding the league’s response to domestic violence, concerns about long-term player health, and a slew of other issues, some lawmakers have moved to repeal the NFL’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

The NFL tried to sway the FCC over the summer, mounting a campaign suggesting that a repeal of the blackout rule could prompt football to migrate to pay-TV only. But FCC lawmakers weren’t moved. “Some have tried to scare sports fans by arguing that football games will move from broadcast television to cable or satellite TV if the FCC eliminates the sports blackout rule,” Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said during the ruling.

"To begin with, there is no way that this can happen anytime soon," he said. "The NFL’s contracts with over-the-air broadcasters extend until 2022, but more importantly, by moving games to pay TV, the NFL would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.”

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