Groups Petition FCC to Lift Sports Blackout Rule

Media Access Project (MAP) and Public Knowledge have joined the Sports Fan Coalition in petitioning the FCC to lift its sports blackout rule.

"We promote access to the media and the rule stifles access," said MAP's Andrew Schwartzman.

The rule prevents cable or satellite providers from carrying an NFL game when the over-the-air broadcast is blacked out due to lack of attendance at the game.

"This is the biggest organized effort in decades to put an end to the federal government's support for anti-consumer blackouts," Sports Fans Coalition executive director Brian Frederick said in a statement. "It is ridiculous that the leagues continue to black out games from their own fans after taking in massive public subsidies, during such difficult economic times, and even more ridiculous that the federal government props up this practice through the Sports Blackout Rule."  

"Sunday's Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Houston Texans will be blacked out locally, marking the 8th blackout this season in the NFL and the 4th in Tampa Bay," said the coalition. "The Buccaneers play in Raymond James Stadium, which cost $168.5 million and was fully funded by taxpayers."

"Eliminating the Sports Blackout Rule would be a pro-fan, pro-consumer, deregulatory action serving the public interest by expanding the availability of sports to the public without adding any regulatory compliance costs to the private sector," said the groups in their petition for rulemaking. "Without a regulatory subsidy from the federal government in the form of the Sports Blackout Rule, sports leagues would be forced to confront the obsolescence of their blackout policies and could voluntarily curtail blackouts."

In a conference call with reporters in September, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus (CBS carries AFC games) said not to look for the NFL to lift its broadcast blackout rule anytime soon. A reporter opining over the number of blackouts for the Jacksonville Jaguars' and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' games -- broadcasts are blacked out locally if the stadium is not sold out 72 hours before game time (with a few exceptions) -- asked whether McManus thought NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell might be open to modifying the policy.

McManus said that the league and the commissioner have been "pretty insistent" that the rule, over the course of its lifetime, has been good for the league, its broadcast partners and the teams. He said Goodell has been pretty firm in his commitment that "you don't make adjustments in the short term." The issue has come up as the down economy took a toll on attendance, particularly for struggling teams.

McManus said he, too, thought the blackout rule has been effective "by and large," and said he does not think the NFL has any intention of lifting it.

In comments in the FCC's retransmission consent proceeding last June, the NFL told the FCC to leave the rule alone, in this case in response to calls, including from the Sports Fan Coalition, for waiving it during retrans impasses.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.