The most significant discussion of NFL blackouts in 40 years is taking place right now. Given the fact that the NFL's blackout rule punishes disabled, poor and elderly fans and the fact that the rule doesn't even work, it's long past time the rule was eliminated.
According to NFL rules, if a game is not sold out within 72 hours, the television broadcast is blacked out in the local market. The Federal Communications Commission then steps in and says that if local broadcasters can't air a game locally, then neither can cable or satellite companies. Cities like Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Oakland have been plagued by NFL blackouts over the last decade. These blackouts happen despite the fact that the NFL is making hand over fist and will earn $6 billion per year from its television contracts starting in 2015.
In January, the FCC agreed to review its 36-year-old blackout rule in response to a petition filed by Sports Fans Coalition and other prominent public interest groups. (The rule itself pre-dates ESPN!) On February 13, the initial deadline for public comments, formal comments were filed by Sports Fans Coalition, the NFL, MLB, the National Association of Broadcasters, five U.S. Senators, several top sports economists (who said "blackouts have no significant effect on ticket sales in the NFL"), and over 4,000 individual fans around the country.
Among the individual comments from fans are some really heartbreaking letters of loyal fans who have cheered for their team over the years, but are physically unable to attend games anymore.
From Arthur in Williamsville, NY:
I am completely disabled now... My late brother & I had season tickets, but now due to disability I can't walk from the car nor navigate the crowds. Please note so many of the "crowds" show no concern for the disabled. I pay taxes that go to support the upkeep as well as the original construction. The ability to see games on tv is the very least to be give back to those who have given their all to support the team and the league.
From Stephan in Olean, NY:
I am a disabled veteran that not only cant afford to travel to the games but I physically can't get to buffalo for the home games, like I used to before I became disabled! So my only way to see the Bills is by watching them on TV. When it gets blacked out it's frustrating.
From Frank in Buffalo, NY:
I had season tickets from the mid 70s till 1984. I sat through a lot of rainy (or snowy) games, and a lot of losing seasons, but I am still a Bills fan. I'm now retired, and physically unable to go to the stadium. I don't think it's fair that after my years of support, I can't watch the games on television. My 91 year old mother-in-law is also saddened by the blackouts.
From Jeanette in Blasdell, NY:
The reason for my desire to have blackouts stopped is how discriminatory they are to disabled people. My mom was in a wheelchair with severe complications of diabetes and it was simply not possible for her to go to a game. I could not understand why she would get so upset and tearful until I developed a form of dystrophy and now it is not possible for me to go to games.
From Stephen in Fairborn, OH:
I've been dealing with cancer for the last 4-plus years. Surgeries and chemo have left my stomach as a ball of pain. An occasional jostle at a supermarket isn't too bad, but the kind of crowds that attend football games is beyond anything I have the physical capacity to tolerate.
There are many, many more like this from fans who would love to be able to attend games but simply can't.
In its filing with the FCC, the NFL wrote that "blackout policies, supported by the FCC's sports blackout rule, promote live attendance and thus improve the stadium experience." However, nine top sports economists led by Roger Noll also filed comments stating: "Academic research supports the conclusion that local television blackouts have little or no effect on ticket sales or attendance for the game that is being televised. Local blackouts of home games harm consumers without producing a significant financial benefit to teams."
The NFL has yet to provide any actual evidence to support its claim that blackout rules promote live attendance -- likely because it doesn't have any. Of course, if the NFL is having trouble selling tickets to the most popular sporting event in America, it could lower ticket prices, but that would be too easy.
So what does the NFL have to say to its loyal, but physically disabled, fans? How can it justify blacking them out when the numbers show blackouts don't even work?