Under Political Pressure, NFL Suspends TV Blackouts

The league will decide whether to permanently end the unpopular policy at the end of the season.

Facing intense pressure from lawmakers and federal regulators, the NFL decided Monday it won't black out any games on TV—at least for the 2015 season.

The announcement is an abrupt reversal for the league, which had long defended the policy that prevented local TV stations from airing games if the team failed to sell out at least 85 percent of the stadium.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission repealed its regulations which had supported the NFL's blackout policy. The rules barred cable and satellite providers from showing games that were blacked out on local stations. But even with the FCC's rule change, the NFL's actual blackout policy had remained in effect.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., pushed legislation to strip the NFL of its exemption from fair competition laws if it refused to end its blackout policy.

The NFL owners approved a one-year suspension of the policy Monday and said they will evaluate a long-term decision after the season. An NFL spokesman noted that the league had blacked out no games in 2014 and only two games in 2013.

The league had argued that the policy helped to ensure full attendance at games and boost local economies.

But fans have long complained about the threat of missing their favorite teams unless they shelled out hundreds of dollars for tickets.

In a statement, Blumenthal called the NFL's decision a "major victory for the millions of sports fans," and an important step towards permanently ending the "antiquated, anti-consumer rule [that] has for too long served only to protect the NFL's bottom line at the expense of sports fans."

Higgins, who represents Buffalo, N.Y., a frequent victim of the NFL blackouts, said the reversal was a "long time coming" and likely signals the permanent end of the policy.

"I think congressional pressure and the FCC ruling finally compelled the NFL to take a serious look at this policy, and when they did, I don't think there was any compelling reason for them to continue it, economically or otherwise," Higgins said in an interview.

He noted that his legislation is still pending and said he and the other cosponsors will have to decide whether to continue pushing it.

Higgins argued that the NFL is trying to earn some goodwill with the public as it battles other controversies, including evidence of brain injuries to its players and the league's handling of domestic-abuses cases.

"The NFL needs a public-relations win, and there was no better opportunity than to go with this," he said.