September 30 used to be an unofficial holiday around the National Football League offices and that held true between 1961 until yesterday. The Federal Communications Commission ruined the day by weakening the NFL’s blackout rule.
In a rare showing of bipartisanship, the three Democrats and the two Republicans on the FCC Board decided to end the NFL blackout rule. Most football fans won’t notice the change because very few home games are blacked out in home markets and the rule change won’t kick in until 2022. The NFL’s contracts with TV networks allow them to blackout a game if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff.
The FCC had every reason to get involved in the NFL’s TV business. On September 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 which basically gave the NFL the foundation on which the business is built today. The NFL lobbied Congress to give them what the American Football League and Major League Baseball had. The ability to merge the then 14 franchises into one business and sell the package as one to a TV network. Major League baseball was exempt from federal antitrust laws because of the 1922 Supreme Court of the United States decision that baseball was a game, not an interstate business. No one paid attention to the AFL because it was a startup league. After the NFL got the antitrust waiver, Commissioner Pete Rozelle pitted CBS against NBC in a bidding war, CBS won and the NFL had more TV money than the owners ever imagined. That process continues to this day.
The blackout rule started in 1951 in large part because most of NFL revenues came from selling tickets. In 1949, the Los Angeles Rams franchise drew 300,000 people, in 1950 with home games on TV, the attendance dropped by about 50 percent. Commissioner Bert Bell urged his owners not to televise home games because people could watch games at home instead of paying to be at the stadium. The NFL won court challenges to the blackout rule in 1953 and 1962. In 1973, Congress forced the NFL to change the blackout rule which stood until yesterday.
NFL teams no longer depend on day of game ticket sales and most of the league’s revenue comes from enormous TV partnership. At this point, the FCC decision seems more symbolic than game changing.
This article was republished with permission from the author, Evan Weiner. It was originally published in sportstalkflorida.com.