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The NFL may have sent fake fan letters to the FCC in 2014 to keep a sports blackout rule

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The blackout rule was supposed to encourage viewers to attend live events and fill up stadiums

Miami Dolphins v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission received thousands of letters from NFL fans asking for it to keep a sports blackout rule intact — a policy that allowed the NFL to block TV stations from airing games that weren’t sold out. The Wall Street Journal reports today that many of the letters appear to be fake: some signatures used fake names like The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins, and others used real email addresses but owners denied ever writing those letters.

Due to travel requirements, accessibility, and ticket prices, it’s clear why many people would prefer to watch football on TV, which leaves the NFL fighting to convince viewers to buy tickets to fill up stadiums that remain half empty. That’s why, in 1975, the NFL successfully convinced the FCC to enact the controversial blackout rule, which banned cable and satellite providers from airing select home games that haven’t sold out. With help from the rule, the NFL could simply choose which local TV broadcasts and which poorly selling games it wanted to block. In some years, that number was one game; in others, it was 15. Sometimes teams would purchase tickets to make sure games wouldn’t be blacked out.

The letters began “I write as a football fan” and requested that the rule remain because, without it, premium television channels could start charging higher fees to broadcast games. The WSJ identified and interviewed fans whose names were used in the letters and were angry to be used as spokespeople for a cause they didn’t believe in.

In 2014, the NFL also lobbied for the FCC to maintain its sports blackout rule. It hired four firms, one of which used a subcontractor to collect the fan letters, an anonymous source told the WSJ. The firm’s parent company Burson-Marsteller confirmed that it used grassroots practices to engage audiences, but refused to comment on the fake names. Burson-Marsteller said in a statement to The Verge: “For our program with the NFL back in 2014, we used industry-leading and widely used online technology and practices based on targeted advertising — and used by firms across the grassroots industry — to engage key audiences and encourage them to take action on an issue.”

Ultimately, despite the NFL’s many efforts, the FCC repealed the sports blackout rule with a unanimous 5-0 vote in 2014, declaring it “unnecessary and outdated.” The FCC found that the NFL mainly makes money from television and that blackouts are “increasingly rare.” While the NFL could continue its own private policy to black out games, the FCC would no longer protect the policy. The FCC told The Verge, “The FCC unanimously repealed the sports blackout rule in 2014, notwithstanding the letters in question, so the proceeding is no longer pending.” The NFL didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update September 10th, 1:54PM ET: This article has been updated with comment from Burson-Marsteller and the FCC.