The FCC today unanimously voted to end its sports blackout rules nearly four decades after they were first implemented in 1975. Despite stiff objections from the NFL, the Commission has put an end to the rules that barred cable and satellite providers from airing games blacked out on local broadcast stations because they failed to sell out. But it only ends the government's rules. The NFL still has its own, private blackout rules in place with broadcasters like FOX and CBS, and those may still prevent fans from watching local games when tickets remain at the box office.
Specifically, here's what the FCC says is the outcome of today's vote:
The action removes Commission protection of the NFL’s current private blackout policy, which requires local broadcast stations to black out a game if a team does not sell a certain percentage of tickets to the game at least 72 hours prior to the game.
Until now, the FCC's rules protected the NFL's restrictions by extending them to cable and satellite, but they're now history. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler led a public campaign to dismantle the rules, going so far as publishing a USA Today editorial that accused blackout rules of "hurting loyal fans." "We at the FCC shouldn't be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV," Wheeler wrote earlier this month.
On the opposite side, the NFL has argued blackout rules help the league keep "games on free television without an issue." The NFL has tried to appeal to fans with its own public-facing website arguing that the old rules have worked just fine for decades. As other sports have made their way primarily to cable, the NFL insists its blackout rules help keep games on over-the-air channels for fans. The league has also claimed that the rules help local economies and businesses near football stadiums.
But Wheeler never bought into any of those argument. "If the league truly has the best interest of millions of American fans at heart, they could simply commit to staying on network television in perpetuity," he said. So the NFL's broadcast TV blackouts remain in place, but today's unanimous vote could help pressure the league and team owners into permanently doing away with them.
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