The FCC Ruling May Not Be the End of NFL Blackouts

Fans hate NFL blackouts. The FCC will no longer support them. So why does the NFL want to keep them around?

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Let us remember the plight of the Green Bay Packers fan. As the Packers headed into the NFC wild-card matchup, temperatures were expected to hit minus 19°. But local cheeseheads unwilling to submit themselves to Arctic temperatures couldn't watch the game on television. The reason? Not enough fans had bought tickets, and a rule from 1975 by the Federal Communications Comission declared that any local game that failed to sell 85 percent of tickets within three days of kickoff couldn't be broadcast.

The idea was to make sure fans showed up to stadiums instead of sitting on the couch. But with nearly all modern NFL games selling out and the league pulling in $6 billion a year in television revenue, the FCC, under the direction of Tom Wheeler, voted unanimously today to longer support the rule. Now, cable and satellite networks will be allowed to broadcast local games to local markets, regardless of ticket sales.

It's easy to see this as a victory for football fans, who can now ostensibly watch the game without shelling out the NFL average ticket price of $254.70. (Though it's worth noting that only two games were blacked out in the 2013 season, and only 16 in 2012.)

But it's interesting to note who also wins in this arrangement: Cable and satellite broadcasters. Over-the-air broadcasters (i.e., non-pay cable channels) will still likely be shut out of the deal. As Edward Wyatt points out in The New York Times, "cable system operators could reap rewards for importing a blacked-out game’s broadcast and selling local advertising spots."

Also interesting? Newly installed FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler, before starting his new job, was a lobbyist for cable and telecommunications companies.

Meanwhile, FCC ruling or no, this doesn't mean blackouts will go away. The NFL is still free to keep its own blackout rules on the books (their own blackout rules, from 1950, actually predates the FCC rule by 25 years). But according to a letter to the FCC by the NFL, they may have no choice but to pursue selling broadcast rights to pay cable channels:

By ensuring that televising games will not reduce live attendance, the sports blackout rule encourages sports leagues to reach deals with broadcast networks, the eventual result likely would be a decrease in the amount of professional sports on broadcast television.

For now, the ball is still in the NFL's court, to mix sports metaphors, though the FCC ruling may mean that they have to give up their blackout rules eventually. Caught in the middle are fans who, for whatever reason, may still have to shell out to see their local team play. But now they'll be paying a cable provider instead of scrounging for nosebleed seats on StubHub.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.