FCC Votes To End Its Sports Blackout Rule

from the game-time dept

Blackout rules in sports: they’re really stupid. Sure, perhaps there was some semblance of logic at one time behind the theory that if the stadium seats weren’t filled, a team would pull a game off of television to encourage attendance, but the point is that in the age of massive television deals that are so much more important for a team or league’s revenue compared with stadium sales, such that some teams try to fake their way into televising games, finding excuses to keep games off of the money-machine that is television is just plain silly.

What you may not know is that the leagues have had a federal partner in blacking out games for quite a while in the FCC. While the NFL is really the only league left that is bothering with blackout rules, they’ve now lost that partner as the FCC has unanimously voted to repeal its support for sports blackouts.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to repeal the sports blackout rule. Currently, the NFL will not allow broadcasters in a team’s home market to air games that have not sold out. This unfriendly practice is a matter of private contract between the league and the broadcasters, restricting what a sports fan can watch in the process. The FCC’s sports blackout rule prevented cable systems from carrying those games, as well. Although the repeal of the sports blackout rule is no guarantee that cable viewers will be able to see blacked-out games, now the NFL will have to arrange for blackouts solely through private contracting. The rule applies to any sports league, but only the NFL currently blacks-out games on local broadcast.

This, believe it or not, is an important step. Not because it represents any dramatic shift in televising games in and of itself, but because it’s the beginning of the lift on blackout restrictions in general. Television blackouts due to attendance are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to blackouts in general, but if this starts building momentum such that the growing masses of cable-cutters can finally get local sports games with their internet packages somewhere down the road, it’s a big deal. Because, as I’ve argued before, the only dam holding back an overflowing river of cable-cutters is professional and college sports. Take that away and the river runs wild.

This FCC vote, by the way, comes at the behest of a petition from Public Knowledge.

The vote follows a petition Public Knowledge filed with its allies that argued the FCC should end this archaic rule as an unnecessary intervention in the marketplace on behalf of the NFL, one of the most powerful sports leagues in the world. The following statement can be attributed to John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge:

“We’re pleased that our petition, the voices of sports fans and TV viewers, and the evidence has persuaded the FCC to act on the public’s behalf. Private parties should not be able to use government regulations as an excuse to limit fans’ access to their local teams.”

To be clear, local broadcasts can still be blacked out by the NFL, but that won’t last much longer. Already there are rumblings from the NFL that indicate they realize that their product is far better consumed on television, and that fantasy football is pushing a larger consumption of multiple games throughout a day, rather than driving dedicated fans to a single stadium for the day. Good on the FCC for getting this right, even though they probably should have made this move a few decades ago.

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Comments on “FCC Votes To End Its Sports Blackout Rule”

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Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Given the increase in the capabilities and presence of mobile devices combined with the decrease in cost and size, it’s only a matter of time until a sporting event picked at random is streamed in real time by 10, 100, 1000, 10,000 members of the crowd watching it in person.

The owners will of course try to stop this, but how? They can’t confiscate that many devices, the backlash would be enormous. They can’t keep them from entering since most of them are phones and everyone expects to bring their phones with them. They can’t impose a radio blackout because everyone expects their phones to work. They can’t try to allow some and not others because that’s way too onerous to implement in practice. They can’t try to identify and throw out everyone do it because there will be way too many and again, the backlash would be enormous.

Those streams will be far from perfect of course, for all kinds of reasons that are immediately obvious. But they’ll always get better, never worse, and there will come a point when 4,000 random amateur-operated cameras trump 18 carefully-placed professionally-operated ones. And then someone will cook up software that combines the data streams from all of them in real time to generate 3D output which can be “viewed” from any chosen angle, buffered (for instant replay), and so on.

(Copyright? Meh. Let’s see a team take 3,972 season ticket holders to court over copyright. I’m sure that will work out well for them.)

And that will be the beginning of the end for sports broadcasts unless they can find a way to add sufficient value to justify the cost. Clearly some operations are coasting: CBS’s football telecasts are awful, featuring idiotic commentators, a lack of sideline reporters, and endless promotion of their primetime crap. Others are better: Tirico and Grudin do a pretty good job for ESPN. Those which can provide scarce commodities (literate, timely, expert analysis) will manage, those that feature prattling morons will not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: for phones read drones

“.. there will come a point when 4,000 random amateur-operated cameras trump 18 carefully-placed professionally-operated ones. And then someone will cook up software that combines the data streams from all of them in real time to generate 3D output which can be “viewed” from any chosen angle, buffered (for instant replay), and so on.”

One change:

“.. there will come a point when 4,000 random amateur-operated drones trump 18 carefully-placed professionally-operated ones. And then someone will cook up software that combines the data streams from all of them in real time to generate 3D output which can be “viewed” from any chosen angle, buffered (for instant replay), and so on.”

I think the software already exists to do this. Getting it done as a huge open-source project would be difficult, especially the part about funding legal defenses to beat off hordes of rabid media companies and the NFL (remember the famous restriction on ‘any other accounts of the game’ etc).

Mark Gisleson (profile) says:

The NBA's League Pass

still blacks out local games, making it impossible for fans to watch the local team except by paying for cable TV.

League Pass is a horrible run service, something the NBA did solely to take the heat off them for their unholy alliance with cable. Very few NBA games are shown on broadcast TV, and their playoffs are all locked up by cable channels. It’s a pay-per-view league, and only fans in a handful of cities get to watch the home games and playoffs without paying at least $600 a year.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sport blackouts = the hostage demanding ransom for their release

Sports blackouts are basically someone taking themselves hostage and demanding a bunch of money for their safe return. If the ransom isn’t paid, the ‘hostage’ and ‘hostage taker’ shoot themselves in the foot.

Sure the people who know the hostage are upset about their injury, but in the end the hostage/hostage taker is the real loser. They could have made money airing their game on local TV.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And MLB blacks out “home” teams on MLB.TV.

I am a Red Sox fan but I live in western NY, 6 hours from NYC. I am 3 hours from toronto.

Guess which games get blacked out? Any time the Red Sox PLAY the yankees, regardless if home or away, the game is a blackout on MLB.TV. I can watch ANY game they play Toronto.

YES usually only broadcasts one of the games on local TV (the friday game, but it isn’t every Friday SOXvNYY game) , they might be the feature game on FOX on Saturday, but that isn’t every series, and they don’t always fall on the weekend. So, fuck blackouts. I don’t even want to watch YES in the first place, if I can help it. THats why I paid for MLB.TV, so I could watch the NESN stream every time.

Anonymous Coward says:

This practice of blackout is part of what got me away from watching TV Sports. I am not going to buy a season ticket to the stadium. I hate the crowds. I also hate the idea of a rip off on watching sports through what they want to charge.

I am not a fanatic sports fan but I used to care about which team was winning and where it ranked. I would at one time watch the games on tv. However because of blackouts you weren’t going to see every game. No sense in following if you can’t watch your favorite team play.

Over time, that no sense in following part made more sense than trying to find somewhere that had it. So I cared less and less each year until it no longer matters. I don’t watch sports anymore and find I don’t miss it. I got other things I can do besides sit in front of a tv.

Anon says:

Is that the rule?

Really? I always thought the rule was that the league could *not* black out sold out games – they could whatever they wanted with empty-seat ones.

IIRC this came from the Nix on era (he was a football fan?) that people complained they could not get tickets and the game was blacked out locally. The FCC was told to make a rule that if the game was sold out, the gam could not be blacked out locally.

I guess with pay-per-view and similar pay services, what constitutes “blacked out”? What does “not allowed to black out locally” mean any more? Time to get rid of the rule.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is that the rule?

Don’t know about NFL but used to be in the NBA that local blackout could be lifted if the game was sold out at least 72 hours before (24 hours for a playoff game).

Admittedly NBA arenas range from 14,000 to 20,000 seats whereas NFL arenas range 60,000 to 100,000 seats. Thus the NFL has a tougher time in some markets to sell out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Two points, first, the NFL as a league is exempt from taxes, but the teams are not. All of the big revenue that goes to the league (TV Contracts etc.) pretty much get funneled to the individual teams (and their owners pockets). Those individual teams are subject to taxes, so taxing the organization NFL really wouldn’t do anything, because taxes on the teams pretty much covers the income that the NFL brings in.

Second on the FCC ruling, while I can see why teams and the NFL set a black out policy, that is what it should have been, a business policy, not a government regulation. Why should our government pass laws that harms consumers?

That is the big question.

cookies_mmm says:

FCC blackouts

As a user of nba league pass both internationally and state side, the one internationally FAR surpasses the one in the states. I was shocked at least, because I thought that seeing as the NBA takes place IN America, it should be an even better experience. Black out rules are the dumbest, because what’s happening is that by purchasing league pass, fans want the NBA experience, NOT the TV experience. People are paying $135 or more to see their respective teams, only to be told they have to watch it later. Hopefully this all can come to close soon.

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