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FCC commisioner urges end to blackouts

A Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission came to Buffalo on Tuesday to push for the repeal of the federal government’s sports blackout rules.

Amid increasing pressure from the National Football League to maintain the rules, Commissioner Ajit V. Pai, who was born in Buffalo in 1973, joined Rep. Brian Higgins at a news conference at the Anchor Bar to push for the end of the government’s role in the issue.

“There is no reason for the FCC to be in the sports blackout business,” Pai said. “We should be on the side of sports fans instead.”

Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who has been among the loudest congressional voices to push for an end to the blackout rules, agreed.

“The 40-year-old sports blackout rule is unfair, antiquated and harmful to fans that have backed their hometown teams through their support and tax dollars,” Higgins said.

In December, the FCC voted to eliminate the blackout rules, but that vote opened a long public comment period required before the agency can make a final decision.

In recent weeks, the NFL has ratcheted up the pressure on the FCC to preserve the rules, sending lawyers to meet with agency officials to press its case and sending a letter to the agency saying the blackout rules remain “a key component of the commercial and regulatory system that has enabled the NFL to keep its games available on broadcast television.”

The league has also created in hopes of getting fans to support the blackout rules. And Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann appeared on the NFL Network last week to say the rule “helps grow the game and helps maintain it.”

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 FCC voted to eliminate require 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 the games don’t sell out.

But Pai said that if the rules are repealed, “it’s going to create a lot of peer pressure for the league to take a more fan-friendly approach.”

Now that the public comment period on the issue has ended, it’s up to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to put the blackout rule on the agency’s agenda.

Saying he hopes the issue comes up soon, Pai added: “I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies. Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners.”


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