FCC should change its unfair blackout policy favoring the NFL’s billionaire owners - The Buffalo News
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FCC should change its unfair blackout policy favoring the NFL’s billionaire owners

The Federal Communications Commission should carry through on its plan that will allow Buffalo Bills fans to watch every home game on TV.

A Republican member of the commission and a Democratic congressman were in town Tuesday to push for what most football fans want: repeal of the NFL television blackout rule.

Commissioner Ajit V. Pai and Rep. Brian Higgins held a news conference urging the government to butt out of the issue. Pai, who was born in Buffalo in 1973 and therefore may have an innate sense of fellowship with Bills fans, spoke from the heart to fans frustrated by industry-imposed blackouts.

The blackout policy, instituted in 1975, prevents games that are not sold out 72 hours before kickoff from being broadcast in the home team’s market.

The FCC entered the controversy in December, when commissioners voted unanimously to eliminate the blackout rule, and set up a long comment period to precede a final vote.

With time for comments over, Pai is calling out FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to finally put the issue to a vote. A simple majority of the five commissioners is all that’s required.

The NFL is dead set against changing the policy, arguing that a repeal would undercut blackout agreements the league has with its network broadcasters. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell raised the possibility that lifting the blackout rules could potentially lead to fewer games broadcast for free. The NFL and its network partners have gone to great lengths to establish a “Protect Football on Free TV” campaign, appointing Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann as its spokesman.

What the owners are really trying to protect is their ability to extract every dollar possible from fans on game day.

Pai is right when he says that repealing the FCC’s blackout policy wouldn’t prevent the NFL or its teams from privately negotiating their own rules with cable and satellite companies. Of course, he realizes that without the rule to point to, teams would have a hard time justifying blackouts to their fans.

Higgins has introduced a bill that would eliminate the antitrust exemption that allows the NFL to black out sporting events. It is worth noting that other sports, including hockey, baseball and basketball, manage to thrive despite televising most of their home games.

This comes down to the issue of fairness to the fans and to the taxpayers who underwrite most of the nation’s football stadiums, including Ralph Wilson Stadium. They have every right to watch games that are played there. If the league’s billionaire owners are worried that fewer fans will buy tickets, the answer is simple: Put a compelling product on the field. When the Bills routinely made the playoffs the team had no trouble selling tickets even though it was obvious the games would be on local TV.

Attempting to blackmail fans into attending games and then pulling the plug on those unwilling or unable to go is not right.

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