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This week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to end the process of blacking out NFL games that do not sell out. The move was enthusiastically approved of by fans, especially those living in small markets, but the truth is NFL games may still continue to be blacked out thanks to the complicated nature of broadcast television agreements. Even if that’s the case, however, the FCC’s ruling is extremely important over the long haul. Here’s why.
Back in 1975, the FCC enacted a rule that automatically blacked out any NFL games in local markets that weren’t sold out ahead of kickoff. At the time, the move was praised by some as a way to ensure the league would continue to stay in business and not slowly lose money off freeloaders who didn’t want to pay. Over the years, however, the league’s revenues have shifted wildly from ticket sales to broadcast rights. Now, ticket sale money is only a small percentage of the larger pot, and as such, the FCC decided the NFL should no longer be blacking out games, especially since many teams have received money from local governments for new stadiums based on the idea that they operate for the public good.
Because the NFL controls its own broadcast rights, it can demand both cable companies and broadcast networks continue blacking out any games that aren’t sold out, which is an extreme minority, but if they do, there’s a good chance the federal government will step in. According to The Hollywood Reporter, John McCain and many other Senators have vowed to strip the NFL of its anti-trust exemption if it continues blacking out games. For a wide variety of reasons, that would be an unimaginable disaster for the NFL, and it seems very unlikely Comissioner Roger Goodell and company would ever let it come to that.
So, while the FCC’s ruling probably won’t end blackouts immediately, the road is very rosy for fans over the long haul. In fact, the new normal could be in everyone’s best interests. With TV contracts continuing to skyrocket thanks to the appeal of watching sports live and the TVs themselves getting clearer and clear, more and more fans with money may decide to stay home. This would force owners to lower ticket prices and start selling them to more blue collar hardcore fans who want to be a part of the crowd. This would make the games louder and home field advantage even more menacing.
Expect this blackout situation to play out over the next year or so. We’ll keep you updated on the process as it moves forward. Until then, keep your fingers crossed the NFL chooses the right path for once and decides not to blackout any more games.