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NFL blackout policy, suspended for a year, seems doomed

The NFL blackout rule, which occasionally denied Buffalo Bills fans the right to see their team’s home games ever since the era of O.J. Simpson and Howard Cosell, appears to be on its way to the football graveyard.

Beset by pressure from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission – not to mention a wave of bad publicity about bad-boy players and life-threatening head injuries – NFL owners voted Monday to suspend the blackout policy for the 2015 season.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who led the congressional pressure for the league to eliminate blackouts, said that the one-year suspension is just the beginning of the end of the end of the NFL blackout rule.

“I suspect it’s gone for good,” Higgins said.

To which Bills fans would no doubt say: Great.

While the Bills didn’t have any games blacked out last season, 19 Bills games have been blacked out locally in the past 15 years, thanks in part to the combination of one of the league’s smallest markets and one of its biggest stadiums.

Now, though, NFL team officials seem to see no need for blackouts to continue.

“I think this year (the 2014 season) was the first year we didn’t have a blackout,” said Robert Kraft, the influential owner of the New England Patriots, at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “And I think, with the impact of social media and teams building up their marketing departments and, actually, what’s going on in Washington, that doing what we did this year (suspending blackouts) is a wise thing, I believe.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo Bills President Russ Brandon indicated that a 2015 blackout would have been unlikely in Buffalo even if the league had continued to allow blackouts, given that the team’s season-ticket sales are setting a record pace.

“The way ticket sales are going now, the way we’re pacing on that front, we did not anticipate to have many troubles this season,” Brandon said. “But it’s a one-year moratorium and the league will evaluate it as it goes and, as we’ve always said, we’ll play within the confines of the rules that the league sets down.”

First implemented in 1973, the blackout rule stated that games cannot be broadcast locally when a home team fails to sell 85 percent of its non-premium tickets within 72 hours of kickoff.

Always hated by fans, the NFL blackout policy has grown increasingly unpopular in Washington, as well.

In Congress, Higgins, joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressured the league by pushing legislation that would eliminate the NFL’s antitrust exemption, which allowed the league to impose its blackout rule.

“It was not a question of if, but when” the NFL would suspend its blackout policy, Higgins said. “The NFL raised a big fuss, but it didn’t provide a compelling underlying argument for maintaining blackouts.”

In the meantime, the Federal Communications Commission last September voted unanimously to eliminate its own sports blackout rule, which gave the NFL protective cover as the only U.S. sports league to routinely block local fans from viewing its games.

“It’s a simple fact: the federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the games they want to see. Period,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, said just before the vote.

Higgins – who brought FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to Buffalo last summer to press for the end to blackouts – called the FCC vote “the big, big hurdle” that put the most pressure on the NFL to suspend its blackout rule.

And upon hearing of the NFL’s decision, Pai – who was born in Buffalo – released a statement lauding the end of blackouts.

“This is a big win for sports fans across the country, from Buffalo to San Diego,” Pai said. “When the FCC voted to eliminate our sports blackout rule last September, I called on the NFL to revisit its blackout policy and adopt a more fan-friendly approach. Today’s announcement by the NFL is a big step in the right direction.”

Fans groups such as the Buffalo Fan Alliance also pressured the league to end the blackout policy.

Still, Monday’s league action came as a shock to Matt Sabuda, founder and president of the Buffalo Fan Alliance.

“That came out of left field,” Sabuda said after learning of the NFL’s decision. “I’m surprised they turned this around so quickly.”

In addition to the political pressure, the new reality of the NFL – where teams increasingly count on season-ticket premium seating and luxury boxes for a growing share of their revenue compared to single-game ticket sales – probably played a role in the league’s decision, Sabuda said.

“It just doesn’t make any sense anymore,” Sabuda said of the blackout policy. “Why fight for something just to fight?”

Zremski reported from Washington, while Carucci reported from the NFL owner meetings in Phoenix. email: jzremski@buffnews.com and vcarucci@buffnews.com

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