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NFL comes to its senses and drops burdensome rule that hit loyal fans

Goodbye, blackout. The hated NFL practice of blocking local broadcast of games with empty seats has been sidelined for 2015 and, if observers such as Rep. Brian Higgins have it right, it’s probably gone for good.

The practice was, in a way, understandable. Team owners are in the business of selling tickets and they want to fill the seats before providing free access to TV viewers.

But it’s more complicated than that. Team owners also benefit from television contracts, and television watchers are also taxpayers, whose labors help to fund the construction of stadiums. Those living room game-watchers are already part owners of the sports palaces where NFL teams play and have some claim on a right to watch the games they help to put on.

The blackout’s time has passed. With Higgins, D-Buffalo, in the lead, Congress has been pressuring the NFL to end the practice by threatening to terminate the league’s antitrust exemption, which allowed for the blackouts. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission added to the pressure last September with a unanimous vote to eliminate its own sports blackout rule. That rule gave the NFL cover as the only U.S. sports league to routinely block local fans from viewing its games on television.

And while the NFL’s vote is for this year only, Higgins believes it’s the beginning of the end. Even team officials seem not to care very much. Buffalo Bills President Russ Brandon noted that tickets are being sold at a record-setting pace here, making any 2015 blackouts unlikely, anyway. And New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft observed that there were no blackouts at all in 2014.

So, what would have been the point?

Together, these factors make Higgins’ forecast appear to be on the money. Given the owners’ apparent indifference, Congress’ impatience and the FCC’s action, there appears to be no support whatsoever to maintain or revive the blackout.

That has to be especially gratifying to Bills’ fans, who are some of the league’s most loyal, enduring and long-suffering. Win or lose, they fill the stadium almost every game, and if tickets have been less expensive here than in other cities, they are plenty pricey for an area that is only now starting to emerge from a 50-year economic tailspin.

It’s time for the blackout to fade away, but Higgins and his supporters in Congress should make sure to monitor the league and be prepared to remind the owners why they don’t want the blackout anymore, just in case there is any backsliding after the 2015 season.

It may not be the most pressing matter on the NFL’s agenda, but that’s all the more reason to treat it as the distraction that it is.

Good riddance, blackout.