Pay Ball! Anti-Blackout Bill Introduced

WASHINGTON — The Washington Senators haven’t played a game in decades, but two Washington senators went to bat last week for the Sports Fans Coalition effort to end TV sports blackouts, including use of the potential loss of must-have sports programming as a bargaining chip in retransmission-consent negotiations.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), already named MVPs (Most Valuable Policymakers) by the coalition for their opposition to blackouts, last week teamed on the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act.

That proposed legislation would remove the antitrust exemption for any sports league that does not prohibit or limit sports blackouts in their video contracts, including during retransmission-consent impasses.


The Federal Communications Commission two weeks ago, under acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, proposed to get rid of the agency’s sports-blackout rules. They prevent cable or satellite providers from carrying a National Football League game when the over-the-air broadcast is blacked out. (The NFL requires TV rightsholders to black out any game that doesn’t sell out within 72 hours of kickoff within a home team’s primary and secondary markets.)

But even if the FCC makes that change, leagues would still be free to make blackouts part of their contracts.

The FANS Act also would leave leagues able to provide for blackouts in their contracts. But if Major League Baseball, the NFL, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League retained blackout rights, they would lose the antitrust exemptions that allow them to collectively negotiate exclusive rights deals. Baseball has an even broader antitrust exemption.

“While the FCC’s announcement last week that it would consider changes to the sports blackout rule is encouraging — and something we’ve urged in the past — legislation is still needed to improve this regulatory framework,” McCain said. “The FANS Act would return the focus to the fans, consumers, and taxpayers who make these leagues as successful as they are.”

Eliminating the FCC sports-blackout regime would mean that the NFL could no longer black out home games that don’t sell out. That was a way to ensure that TV would not eat into ticket sales. The bill’s authors suggest there is no longer evidence such blackouts drive fans to the sports venues.

The FANS Act would also remove the exemption for any league that did not make games available over the Internet — they could charge a fee — where viewers could not access them over a TV station or MVPD.

Making games available over the Internet is primarily targeted at baseball, and MLB’s policy of blacking out online access in a team’s home territory whether or not the fan can view the game on TV. The bill would require more targeted blackout policies, such as those instituted by the NFL and NBA.

“Special breaks should be stopped for professional sports leagues that impose anti-consumer blackout policies leaving their fans in the dark,” Blumenthal said in announcing the bill. “Leagues that enjoy antitrust exemptions and billions of dollars in subsidies and other benefits should give their fans fair access to their favorite teams on TV.”


A bill to end TV sports blackouts could cost stations a major bargaining chip in retransmission consent negotiations.

John Eggerton

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.