Blackouts Are a Black Mark for the NFL

The NFL’s absurd ‘blackout policy’ needs to come to an end.

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The Green Bay Packers huddle before a play against the Chicago Bears during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Chicago.
Fans may not be able to watch the Packers on TV this weekend.

Could the unthinkable happen? Could a National Football League playoff game in football-crazy Green Bay not be televised? At the moment, it not only looks like the Packers game on Sunday could be "blacked out," to use the industry's terminology, but other playoff games scheduled for this weekend nearly suffered the same fate.

Why? The so-called "blackout rule," which stems from a 1961 law, states that NFL games for which a certain percentage of tickets have not been sold 72 hours prior to kickoff will not be televised in the local market. Green Bay, along with Indianapolis and Cincinnati, received extensions to the 72-hour rule, as tickets sales were far slower than expected.

Indianapolis, in fact, only reached the required threshold thanks to a grocery chain buying up the last 1,200 tickets; as I'm writing this, Green Bay and Cincinnati are still short. If they don't find someone to scoop up the final batch of tickets, it's entirely possible that fans in Dallas, Phoenix and Buffalo will be able to watch games that local fans can't see. (The last time the NFL blacked out a playoff game was 2002.)

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Of course, even the possibility that playoff games wouldn't be available on local television created a hue and cry over the future of football, and whether a tipping point has been reached at which it is simply more enjoyable to watch a game at home, on television, rather than in person. (And honestly, who can blame Green Bay fans who would rather sit on the couch than out in the sub-zero weather expected at kickoff?)

But the episode, to me, simply highlights the absurdity that is the blackout rule.  The NFL's supposed goal in enforcing the rule is drawing more fans to the stadium, but there's little evidence that blackouts entice fans to pony up for more tickets. More often, they just ensure a backlash against the franchise, which then goes out of its way to prevent future blackouts.

Compounding the problem, Federal Communications Commission rules prevent cable or satellite television providers from showing games that are blacked out on the local networks. However, the FCC recently voted to consider a proposal to end that rule, which theoretically would allow other television providers to swoop in and take advantage if networks black out a game. And that change can come none too soon for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

"While the FCC's recent unanimous vote to eliminate the Sports Blackout Rule is excellent news for fans and taxpayers across Ohio and across the country, the NFL should do everything it can to ensure that the Cincinnati Bengals' Sunday playoff game is not blacked out," Brown said.

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Brown is far from the first lawmaker to complain about the blackout rule. Late last year, in fact, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., introduced a companion bill in the House. Under the legislation, the FCC's blackout rules would be eliminated, and sports leagues would lose some of their anti-trust exemptions if they insist on blackout policies during TV contract disputes or refuse to broadcast games over the Internet. Though it wouldn't end blackouts entirely, the bill would be a significant step in the right direction, removing protections from sports leagues that act in an anti-consumer manner.

Brown also made one additional point that is worth mentioning, saying, "Fans, through local taxes, often help pay for the stadiums. They should be able to cheer on their local teams, especially during the playoffs." And it's true that nearly every NFL team has, in one way or another, benefited from public subsidies for stadium construction. The league itself is also a tax-exempt organization.

With all these public benefits raining down upon it, the least the NFL can do is ditch its blackout policy. If it doesn't – and maybe the league legitimately feels blackouts do it some good, despite the data saying otherwise – regulators and lawmakers would be entirely justified in taking away some of the public goodies the NFL currently enjoys. And hopefully, fans in Green Bay won't have to drive to some other state to see their team play on Sunday.

UPDATE: Both Green Bay and Cincinnati announced that they sold enough tickets to prevent blackouts this weekend.

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