Broadcast access to college football could be the next battleground for the Sports Fans Coalition, whose pushback against the FCC’s sports blackout rules helped topple the FCC-provided government backstop to sports league-imposed TV blackouts.
David Goodfriend, chairman of the Sports Fans Coalition, signaled last week that he had already discussed the issue with the staff of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the group’s former MVPs (most valuable policymakers). Goodfriend saluted Blumenthal for efforts he made in tandem with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to both eliminate the blackout rules, and take other steps to provide more televised access to sports programming.
So-called sports siphoning was a big issue when games first began to migrate to pay TV, but that trickle became a wave that seemed inexorable. The coalition has been working to give fans as many free TV seats to the big games as possible, which was one of many topics Goodfriend discussed with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton. An edited transcript follows.
What is the current status of sports blackouts on TV?
Earlier this year, the NFL announced that it was suspending its local blackout policy for the coming season [blacking out TV broadcasts in home markets with insufficient ticket sales]. That means no game will ever be threatened with a blackout again for failing to sell enough tickets.
But the NFL suspended it just for this season.
I meant next season. But I am assuming the sky will not fall, the revenue will not drop, the game will not lose its popularity and, therefore, the NFL, in its wisdom, will see that it can keep that rule permanently shelved.
It used to be that the NFL would threaten the blackout and it was often the local broadcaster who would have to buy up blocks of unsold tickets. So, even though the game was televised, it was coming out of the hide of the local broadcaster. With the suspension of the rule, that threat goes away. And, if you talk to the general manager of stations in Buffalo or Jacksonville or San Diego or Cincinnati, any of the markets historically hit hard with blackouts, you will find some very happy people.
I think that because the FCC voted five to zero to eliminate the sports blackout rule, and because Senator McCain and Senator Blumenthal came out so strongly against it, the NFL decided the best thing it could do was suspend the rules.
So the FCC has bagged its blackout rules and the NFL its blackout policy—does that mean it’s ‘game over?’
I think there is still room to put the final nail in the coffin.
The antitrust exemption that allows for local blackouts. The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 that established the antitrust exemption for the NFL and other leagues to collude when it comes to broadcasting rights also preserved their ability to control the local blackout policy. That provision should go away, and that is part of the FANS [Furthering Access and Networks for Sports] Act that Senators Blumenthal and McCain introduced.
What is the status of that bill?
It still has to be reintroduced in this Congress.
The NFL just dropped its tax-exempt status. Does that have any relevance to what we are talking about?
Yes, unlike other sports, the NFL had lobbied for and received a statutory nonprofit status designation. What they say now is that they will no longer exercise that. I think that was directly related to pressure.
When you have 50 United States senators saying, change the name of the Washington football team or we will take away your nonprofit status, it becomes pretty clear that the nonprofit status was a lightning rod.
So, do you think they changed the status so they wouldn’t have to change the team name?
No, I think they changed it because it was causing them more problems than it was worth.
Sen. Tom Coburn [R-Okla.], who had called for an end to the nonprofit tax status, asked the joint committee on taxation to do an analysis and they found that it was costing taxpayers $10 million a year. That’s not a huge number as far as the NFL is concerned.
Do you have any issues with college sports on TV?
Yes, the NCAA, with public universities being members and also in the form of antitrust exemptions and tax exemptions of their own, are publicly supported. I think it would be great for college students to be able to watch their home teams play for free on TV. I think it should be a requirement that all college games have to be shown on free, over-the-air broadcast in the market where the teams are from.
College students often can’t afford a cable package or don’t even have cable service in their dorms. It would also make broadcasting more relevant to the younger audience. Either that or allow the games to be streamed for free to those zip codes.
Have you reached out to Sens. McCain or Blumenthal on the college issue?
I have raised the issue with Sen. Blumenthal’s staff and they are interested. I am hoping that something like it is in the next iteration of the FANS Act, but I won’t know for sure until we get that thing dropped. It is a good vehicle for it, but not the only vehicle.
Is that your next big issue?
That is certainly one of them. I would like to see the antitrust exemption restriction enacted into law through the FANS Act. I also think that the next time an NFL team threatens to leave a market unless tax dollars are shelled out for a new stadium, we’ll be all over it like a defensive back on a wide receiver.
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.
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