NFL Lifts Blackout Policy after Senate Pressure

Marvin Lewis Tom Coughlin
Dan Leberfeld

On Monday at the league’s annual meetings, the NFL owners voted to suspend existing television blackout rules that required teams to sell out their home games before the game could be shown on local television.

After the 2015 season, the league will decide whether to keep the new rule in place. The vote was 31-1, with the Cincinnati Bengals casting the lone vote against the new policy. The existing rule, in place since 1973, required games to be sold out 72 hours before kickoff to lift the blackout.

The Bengals favor lifting the blackout, but opposed the decision because of a provision added to the rule that would require the revenue shared with visiting teams to be derived from 85% of the home team stadium’s capacity. Thus a team selling less than 85% of capacity would have to buy enough of its own seats to make up the difference.

Even though the Bengals have not had a blackout since November 25, 2012, Bengals president Mike Brown explained, “There is no reason to tie this into lifting the blackout. They are apples and oranges. If you just had the blackout rule standing alone, we would have voted to lift it.”

Bengals vice-president Troy Blackburn added, “This is the first time, I believe, that this has ever happened, that there’s a selling floor. We just said if you want to suspend the blackout rule, suspend it, just apply the normal ticket sharing rules then go on. It ends up being essentially a tax on the smaller markets. Is that a good thing?”

Buffalo and San Diego experienced the most recent blackouts in 2013. Fans in Cincinnati, Oakland, and Tampa Bay endured blackouts in 2012. Nashville and New York remain the only NFL markets never experiencing a blackout since the institution of the current rule in 1973.

The NFL had no blackouts in 2014, and only two in 2013. But that fact did not deter the FCC from voting 5-0 in September to eliminate federal protection of the blackout rule, a decision that had no practical effect since the NFL still had contracts with television networks, stations, and service providers.

The NFL may have been pressured to make its Monday decision because the Senate took up the gauntlet. Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing during which Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted the blackout rule, snapping, “There is something wrong with a situation in which the NFL can say to all those fans who have made the league what it is today, ‘You had better purchase tickets, or else.’ The NFL and its teams have benefited from myriad public benefits, including an exemption from antitrust rules, a specialized tax status, and taxpayer dollars that subsidize their multimillion dollar football stadiums. These public benefits carry with them a responsibility back to the public — an obligation to treat their loyal fans with fairness.”

McCain and Senator Richard Blumenthal have brought a bill before Congress titled the FANS Act, which would largely eliminate sports blackouts. He said of his legislation, “This legislation would condition the NFL and other leagues’ antitrust exemption on ending blackout practices, including in those circumstances when stand-offs during contractual disputes between broadcasters and cable and satellite companies result in blackouts. We would strongly prefer that the league take the initiative itself, and demonstrate leadership by reforming anti-consumer policies and practices. But let’s be clear, should the league fail to act, we will do everything we can do stand up for consumers by advancing the FANS Act and other initiatives.”

If the FANS Act passes, cable and satellite companies could conceivably undersell the networks.