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Another Government Battle Over NFL Television Blackouts

 The National Football League and the Federal Communications Commission seem to have a slight disagreement.
The FCC, which regulates television and radio licenses and watches over the industry, would like to end the NFL’s blackout policy that bans a home market telecast (75 miles around the market) if that franchise doesn’t sell out the stadium 72 hours prior to kickoff.


Cable and satellite television cannot show a game in a local market, if there is an NFL blackout. The FCC commissioners feel that the NFL extracts billions from TV and it is time to end the policy. The NFL vehemently disagrees.

“Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public. In this proceeding, we will determine whether the sports blackout rules have become outdated due to marketplace changes since their adoption, and whether modification or elimination of those rules is appropriate,” was the commission’s statement to the public.
Of course, the NFL immediately took issue.
“We will strongly oppose any change in the rule,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told Politico. “We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago. While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”
The NFL has support from a television industry group, according to a statement released by The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton.
“Sports blackouts are exceedingly rare, and NAB dislikes these disruptions as much as our viewers. We’re concerned that the FCC proposal may hasten the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms, and will disadvantage the growing number of people who rely on free, over-the-air television as their primary source for sports.”
Here is the problem with the NAB’s take: There are very few sports shown on “over-the-air” television. Because cable TV and satellite TV can “double dip,” as in the words of one-time NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, there are two primary sources of cable TV revenue: subscriber fees and advertising. Cable TV can afford to pay far more money for sports events than over-the-air TV.
That’s why most sports are on cable and/or satellite TV; the modern day NFL was built by television.
The first NFL game that was televised was in 1939 when NBC broadcast a Philadelphia Eagles-Brooklyn Dodgers game from Ebbets Field to about 1,000 sets in the New York area. Television development, which was halted during World War II, would resume and become an important component in the skyrocketing popularity in later years.
The NFL blackout policy is indeed a relic of a different era. Los Angeles Rams fans from 1949 and 1950 are to blame for the rule, although NFL owners had problems with TV going back to 1946. The NFL owners in 1946 passed a rule prohibiting the broadcast of other team’s games into the home territory when that team was playing at home.
The rule, determined to be anti-competitive, was modified four years later because of pressure from the Justice Department to change it.
In 1949, the Rams franchise drew roughly 300,000 paying customers to attend games at the Coliseum. In 1950 the team’s TV network began to telecast Rams home games in the greater Los Angeles area, and that year the team drew only about 145,000 fans. After the season, then-NFL Commissioner Bert Bell urged teams to blackout home games in an effort to keep the people in the stands for home games instead of in front of the television.
George Preston Marshall’s Washington Redskins franchise also televised all of the team’s games, six home games and six road games. The blackout rule took effect in 1951.
In November, 1953, the NFL blackout policy was upheld by U. S. District Court Judge Allan K. Grim.
“That was a big test case for us,” said New York Giants owner Wellington Mara in the 1990s. “I think the big value of TV was the promotion that it should what a great event this was; what a great game this was. It made people want to come to the ball park, or go up to Stratford, Connecticut to see it on TV.”
New York Giants fans who could not get tickets to the sold out Yankee Stadium would travel to Fairfield County, Connecticut and either rent hotel rooms or go to bars and/or restaurants to watch blacked out home games on WTIC, Channel 3 out of Hartford. Blacked out games meant money six, seven or eight times a year to Connecticut businesses.
The Dumont TV Network paid $75,000 to nationally televise the Los Angeles Rams-Cleveland Browns championship game on December 23, 1951. By 1953, the NFL was in the courtroom defending its blackout policy. Judge Allan K. Grim of the U. S. District Court in Philadelphia upheld the league’s blackout policy and did not violate anti-trust laws.
The 1957 NFL Championship Game was blacked out in the host city, despite Detroit being a sellout. The blackout policy was challenged again in 1962 when the Giants hosted Green Bay in the NFL Championship at Yankee Stadium Judge Edward Weinfeld of the U. S. District Court upheld the NFL position and denied an injunction, which would have forced CBS to televise the game in the New York City area.
The policy would remain in effect until 1973 when Congress passed experimental legislation requiring any NFL game that was declared a sellout 72 hours prior to kickoff be made available for local TV.
The bill was only supposed to have a three-year life and required a Federal Communications Commission review annually.
The NFL blackout policy drew the ire and attention of President Richard M. Nixon in the early 1970s and Nixon wanted to end it. He never did.
In 2012, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg along with Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking for the end of the National Football League’s blackout policy. The Senators referred to the 1973 NFL-Congressional agreement which allowed teams to continue blackouts if a stadium was not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff “a relic of a different time” and added “it is time for [it] to end.”
The Senators also contended that “these blackouts are ruining the experience of rooting for the home team and are unjustly hurting fans.”
The NFL has changed the blackout rules to suit individual teams and there are some tricks where local TV partners, a CBS or FOX affiliate, will buy remaining tickets to reach a home market.
The NFL has had two blackouts this year, one in San Diego and the other in Buffalo.
The NFL is flush with TV money and the owners share TV money equally. It is time to get rid of the blackout rule. When the rule was put into place in 1951, ticket prices were cheap. Today a consumer might have to spend thousands of dollars to purchase the right to buy a ticket because of personal seat licensing agreements. In any event, ticket prices are no longer attractive for middle and low income wage earners which keep away fans from buying tickets to the stadium.
Of course, there is no law saying football games should be on television either.

Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.comHe has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.


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