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Sports blackout battle comes to a head as NFL playoffs nearly go dark

Sports blackout battle comes to a head as NFL playoffs nearly go dark

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Lambeau Field (wiki commons)
Lambeau Field (wiki commons)

Despite recent efforts, blackouts are still a very real threat on screens big and small. That was the case with three of the four NFL playoff games this weekend, which faced blackouts earlier this week due to tickets still being available.

Under the league's 40-year-old rules, the local game must be sold out for it to be broadcast on TV, something that's stymied would-be local viewers. A new law proposed by senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ) two months ago — along with a reevaluation of FCC guidelines — could eliminate what's become a complicated, and sometimes last-minute affair of tuning into games.

Two efforts to end blackouts for good

The Senate bill, called "Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2013," aims to get rid of blackouts by amending The Sports Broadcasting Act. That law, signed in 1961, was originally designed to let sports leagues sell games to a select group of networks as part of a package deal. Separately, the FCC voted last month to consider a proposal to keep cable and satellite TV providers from blacking out games, something the NFL is rallying against.

Both efforts challenge the original guidelines for a blackout, something designed to drive fans to stadiums in order to fill seats. The protective measures keeping fans from getting around those restrictions have scaled alongside the rise of technology that lets people stream video from just about any device. Broadcasters protect digital broadcasts using GPS, and by requiring account verification with local cable providers. All this runs afoul with the rise of larger, multi-billion dollar stadiums, funded (in part) by local taxpayers, according to the FANS Act.

Local TV stations buy the tickets

"These exemptions from federal antitrust law — as well as direct and indirect public subsidies through tax exemptions and public transportation infrastructure by federal and local governments — are intended to protect and promote professional sports," the bill reads. "In practice, however, they do not always translate into benefits to the fans."

In the case of this weekend's game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, a blackout was averted at the very last minute in a way that's become so normal, it's no longer bizarre: private companies and TV affiliate networks bought up the remaining tickets to make sure the game was broadcast locally.

As for the legislation and a decision from the FCC, both could still be months away, long after this year's NFL playoff run comes to a close.