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NFL lifts blackout policy for 2015

The NFL said Monday that it is suspending its blackout rule for one season.

The blackout rule, which has been in place since 1975, is enacted when a home team fails to sell 85 percent of its non-premium tickets within 72 hours of kickoff. As a result, viewers in the local area don’t receive the game.

The league will revisit the issue after the 2015 season.

The move seems to be an obvious response to the political pressure that has been placed on the NFL to abandon the blackout policy, especially for teams such as the Bills, who have one of the larger stadiums in the league that is more difficult to sell out than others. The Bills had no blackouts in 2014 and one in 2013, although local blackouts were more frequent in earlier years.

That political pressure came both from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.

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

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

Meantime, the FCC 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 called the FCC vote “the big, big hurdle” that put the most pressure on the NFL to suspend its blackout rule. And while the league technically suspended the policy only for one year as an experiment, Higgins said: “I suspect it’s gone for good.”

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 an increasing 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?”

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

and: jzremski@buffnews.com

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