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Policy


Some professional football fans have been flooding federal regulators this week with pleas to save a rule that keeps local NFL games from being televised when the hometown stadium doesn’t sell out, thanks to a new push by the National Football League to keep the restriction in place.

More than 500 comments have been filed at the Federal Communications Commission since Monday and commissioners have been getting inundated with emails about the issue, according to agency officials. On Friday alone, the agency had received a hundred more comments by 2 pm ET.

It’s counterintuitive that some fans are trying to save sports blackouts. Football fans generally hate sports blackouts because it means that they won’t be able to watch their local teams play. That’s why consumer groups have supported the FCC’s effort to kill the rule, which bars cable and satellite TV companies from airing games even if a local broadcaster can’t because the hometown stadium didn’t sell out in time.

But the NFL has convinced some fans that the rule is a good idea, arguing it will help prevent owners from moving games onto cable channels and off free local TV broadcasts.

The comments received this week from football fans appear to have been generated from ProtectFootballonFreeTV.com, a site set up by the NFL to help lobby the FCC into keeping the rules in place.

The push by the NFL to defend the sports blackout rules now is a little puzzling because it comes more than six months after the agency said it was considering killing the 40-year-old rule. Two officials said Friday that no action is imminent on the sports blackout issue although the agency is likely to take it up this fall.

An NFL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the lobbying push.

When the FCC’s blackout rules were adopted in 1975, a greater percentage of NFL teams’ revenue came from ticket and concession sales at local stadiums. Owners were concerned that fans wouldn’t go to games if they could watch their local team on cable even if the stadium didn’t sell out.

Federal regulators argue the rule made far more sense years ago before the money from television rights made up the bulk of revenue earned by teams.

“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,” agency officials said in December, when launching an effort to kill the rules.

Broadcasters and NFL officials don’t agree and have argued that the rules are necessary to incentivize teams to keep games on local network TV stations. NFL officials told FCC staffers July 15 that ending the ban would probably lead to the NFL moving games exclusively onto cable channels instead of local broadcast networks.

They have also argued that there’s no need to change the rule since there are very few blackouts every year. There were two blackouts last year, the NFL said. (Local businesses have taken to buying up tickets at the last minute if there’s a threat of a blackout.)

Broadcasters have complained that the effort to repeal the rules — lead by the Sports Fans Coalition, an advocacy group with ties to Verizon and Time Warner Cable — is part of an effort by the cable industry to undercut local broadcasters.

“Repealing the sports blackout rule would create an economic incentive for the NFL to remove professional football from free, over-the-air television because it would allow multichannel video programming distributors to import blacked-out games from other markets and eliminate the NFL’s ability to control the distribution of its content,” the NFL Players Association told the FCC Thursday.

The FCC’s blackout rules aren’t specific to football. But they have a greater impact on NFL games because those games are mostly still aired by local broadcasters. Professional baseball, hockey and basketball games are aired primarily on cable channels so they aren’t really impacted by the FCC’s rule.

Nevertheless, Major League Baseball recently came to the NFL’s defense on the issue, telling the FCC it “has no authority to repeal the Sports Rules; nor is there any proper basis for doing so.”



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