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FCC proposes to eliminate its sports blackout rules, but blackouts aren't going away

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The US government may soon get its hands out of the business of sports blackouts. Acting Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Mignon L. Clyburn sent out a proposal today to dismantle the commission's rule that requires sporting events to be blacked out under certain conditions. She notes in a statement to the press that "changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games."

The FCC's rules, which came into effect in the 1970s, are very limited and do not account for the "vast majority" of blackouts, according to the commission. Sports blackouts caused by the FCC rule are only those that block national cable and satellite networks from showing a sporting event that's been blacked out on local broadcast stations. For example, the NFL's rule prohibits local broadcasters from carrying a game that hasn't been completely sold out at least 72 hours before kickoff. If a game were blacked out on a local network under the NFL's policy, the FCC's rule would kick in and prevent a cable network from showing the game.

"Elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent the sports leagues ... from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events."

As such, chairwoman Clyburn notes that "elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent the sports leagues, broadcasters, and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events." Local blackouts of NFL, MLB, and NHL games that haven't sold enough tickets are a result of policies between the leagues and broadcasters, and would continue to occur no matter what the FCC decides to do with its old rule. Other blackouts, like those that prevent local viewers from watching a game on a national network when it's being simultaneously shown on a local station, would also continue. The proposal could cut down a few blackouts per year, however, and as chairwoman Clybrun says, "If the record in this proceeding shows that the rules are no longer justified, the Commission’s involvement in this area should end."

The FCC policy in question came into being in the 1970s, and it replaced a more draconian rule that prohibited all local sports games from being broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium. The FCC has been open to changing the rule; it sought out public comment on eliminating the policy in 2012. Consumer groups and lawmakers have recently pushed to have the law changed as well.