NFL blackout rule contested, but no light for fans yet

11:25 PM, Dec 18, 2013   |    comments
(Photo: Sam Sharpe, USA TODAY Sports)
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(USA TODAY) - One of the NFL's longest-standing rules may be hitting the bricks and that could be good news for some television viewers.

For much of the past four decades, when an NFL game failed to sell out at least 72 hours in advance of kickoff, the local broadcast could be "blacked out," preventing fans from viewing their local team on TV.

In 2012, the NFL relaxed the rule by allowing teams to lift the blackout if at least 85% of tickets were sold. The league gave teams the flexibility to set their own blackout benchmark between 85 and 100 percent.

The FCC voted Wednesday in favor of a proposal to eliminate blackouts, saying the rule should be adjusted for the times.

"The sports blackout rules were originally adopted nearly 40 years ago when game ticket sales were the main source of revenue for sports leagues...," the FCC said. "Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public."

Even if the government eliminates its rule, nothing would preclude leagues, networks and cable outlets from agreeing to their own deals that would include a blackout rule, either matching the current structure or agreeing to a revised one.

The networks pay a combined total of about $3 billion a year to broadcast NFL games based on a nine-year deal signed in 2011 worth almost $28 billion. Neither Fox Sports nor CBS Sports, the main carriers of the NFL, had any comment on the FCC's proposal.

The NFL said in a statement that it will "strongly oppose any change in the rule. We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago. 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."

Although some blackouts have been avoided when businesses stepped up and purchased the remaining tickets, only one game in the 224 games played this season was blacked out - the Cincinnati Bengals at San Diego Chargers on Dec. 1. There is a chance this week's Buffalo Bills game will be blacked out in its local market.

That compares to 105 games (out of 210) blacked out in 1978.

Consumer activists welcomed the FCC decision.

"Eliminating these rules is a small, but important step," said John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge, a group that defends consumer rights. The FCC "should not be in the business of putting its thumb on the scales in a way that harms viewers," he said.

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