WASHINGTON – The federal sports television blackout rules moved one step closer to the graveyard Wednesday as the Federal Communication Commission voted unanimously to eliminate them.
The vote, which came seven weeks after the FCC announced it was considering such a move, starts a months-long process where the agency will seek public comment about the proposal.
But given the unanimous vote and a strongly worded statement from the agency, it seems likely to opponents of the rules that the FCC will likely stick with its plan to get rid of the restrictions, which occasionally left frustrated Buffalo Bills fans unable to see their beloved team.
“I think clearly the fight is won in terms of the government’s involvement in blackouts,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who has been pushing for the end of the blackout rules. “This is a victory for fans and the communities that have supported teams with public funding for professional sports venues.”
Higgins noted that in moving to end blackouts, the FCC made the same points he’s been making for the past two years to pressure the agency to act.
“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,” the commission wrote. “In this proceeding, we will determine whether the sports blackout rules have become outdated due to marketplace changes since their adoption, and whether modification or elimination of those rules is appropriate.”
The proposal now faces a 60-day public comment period, and the National Football League – the league that relies the most on the blackout rule – is gearing up for a fight.
“We will strongly oppose any change in the rule,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told Politico, a Washington news site. “We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago. While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”
The change would have particular meaning in Buffalo, where the Bills play in one of the NFL’s larger stadiums.
The team announced Tuesday that its Sunday game against the Miami Dolphins will likely be blacked out locally, as about 16,000 tickets remained unsold.
Blackouts are nothing new to the Bills. Two games were blacked out last season, and a total of 19 Bills games have been blacked out since 2000.
The NFL’s television contracts block local stations from airing games in a team’s home market if they don’t sell out 72 hours before kickoff, and the rules that the Federal Communications Commission now wants to eliminate force cable and satellite TV providers to obey the league blackout policy.
Even if the FCC gets rid of its blackout rules, sports leagues, broadcasters and cable and satellite providers will still be able to negotiate their own deals to black out local sporting events if they don’t sell out.
But Matt Sabuda, president of the Buffalo Fan Alliance and the leading local figure in the effort to get the NFL to ease its blackout policy, said the FCC action could make it hard for any league or broadcaster to justify a blackout.
Noting the media landscape has been transformed since the 1970s, when the blackout rules were written and when only three networks televised NFL games, he said: “I think we’re coming close to the point where blackouts are considered a completely archaic concept in general.”