Time to Blow the Whistle on Sports TV Blackouts

For years, sports fans have griped about TV blackouts of local games. The National Football League has a long-standing policy that can stop you from seeing your home team play on your local TV station if the home stadium fails to sell most or all tickets 72 hours in advance.

Back in 1975, the Federal Communications Commission put a rule in place that says cable companies can't carry games that have been blacked out locally, and that rule was eventually extended to satellite TV providers as well. Blackouts impact several sports, but the NFL stands out as a defender of the practice.

At Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we think sports blackouts are outdated, unnecessary, anti-consumer, and anti-fan. Back in the '70s, the argument was the leagues and team owners got most of their revenue from ticket sales, and not enough fans would buy tickets for games that aired on TV. But we all know the sports business has changed dramatically in the last four decades. Leagues have found a multitude of ways to generate revenue beyond ticket sales.

Today, momentum against blackouts is picking up steam fast. The FCC plans to vote September 30 on whether to rid of its rule. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the time has come to sack the obsolete policy, and last month, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) spoke out against the rule in Buffalo, where Pai pointed out that, over the past four seasons, nine Buffalo Bills home games were blacked out for fans in Western New York.

Pai said:

Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners. During my time at the FCC, I have consistently stressed the need to get rid of unnecessary regulations -- of rules that have outlived whatever usefulness they once might have had, of rules that keep hard-working American consumers out of the end zone. The sports blackout rule is just such a rule.

Pai noted that taking the FCC rule off the books won't wipe out blackouts altogether. Leagues would still have room to negotiate private deals to prevent games from airing locally. We support bills in Congress introduced by Rep. Higgins and Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would crack down on blackouts in several ways, including the elimination of antitrust exemptions for leagues to collectively negotiate deals to air games if their contracts include blackout provisions.

We need to bench the blackouts once and for all. The NFL is trying to mount a last-minute defense as the clock winds down at the FCC, but we think it's clear that policymakers need to be playing on the side of consumers.