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FCC to consider ending sports TV blackout rules

Published:   |   Updated: December 19, 2013 at 09:49 AM

For years, fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and other NFL teams have wanted to eliminate rules allowing sports leagues to black out the broadcast of home games on local television.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communcations Commssion said it may soon take action, voting unanimously to move ahead with a proposal to remove the policy.

The commission's near-40-year-old rule primarily serves the NFL in markets that fail to sell out stadiums. Since 1975, the NFL has required teams to sell all non-premium seats within 72 hours before kickoff before lifting the blackout.

In 2012, the NFL allowed teams to relax the standard to selling 85 percent of those tickets. The Bucs use that option, and announced in September that all home games this season would be televised.

Such edicts may soon be a thing of the past after years of lobbying by fan groups, lawmakers, and cable and satellite television companies.

In a notice of proposed rule-making released Thursday, the FCC said the “economic rationale underlying the sports blackout rules may no longer be valid.”

“Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public,” the FCC wrote. “In this proceeding, we will determine whether the sports blackout rules have become outdated due to marketplace changes since their adoption, and whether modification or elimination of those rules is appropriate.”

A months-long process now begins in which the commission will seek public comment about the proposal. But given the strongly worded statement from the agency, it seems likely to opponents of the rules that the FCC will likely stick with its plan to get rid of the restrictions.

“I think clearly the fight is won in terms of the government's involvement in blackouts,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from Buffalo, N.Y., who has been pushing for the end of the blackout rules. “This is a victory for fans and the communities that have supported teams with public funding for professional sports venues.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has long supported removing the blackout rules.

“For years I have worked to reform the regulatory framework that favors the interests of cable and television programming companies and the leagues over those of sports fans and cable consumers,” McCain said. “There is much more work to be done, but the FCC's vote ... moves us one step closer to the finish line.”

The NFL is gearing up for a fight, vowing to strongly oppose any change in the rule.

“The policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets; keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds; and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a report by USA Today.

If the proposal passes, leagues and broadcasters could still negotiate blackouts on their own.

“We recognize that elimination of our sports blackout rules alone might not end sports blackouts, but it would leave sports carriage issues to private solutions negotiated by the interested parties in light of current market conditions and eliminate unnecessary regulation,” the commission said.


Information from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services was used in this report.