In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow blackouts of local TV market sporting events in an effort to ensure televised games do not harm ticket sales. The ban prevented cable and satellite providers from airing games in a home team's market if the league requires a sell out prior to authorizing TV coverage. In the nearly 30 years since that vote, the nature of sporting events and television coverage have changed.
This morning, the FCC reversed course with a 5-0 vote to eliminate the 1975 rule. Essentially, cable and satellite broadcasts will no longer be banned by the FCC from airing a game. That does not mean anything will change, however.
According to the FCC, sports leagues are still able to negotiate blackout rules with the broadcast, cable, and/or satellite providers in an area. This would allow a league like the NFL to continue to blackout non-sold out games in a local market, as long as the television companies agree to the deal.
In a statement from the NFL, those blackout rules will continue to be in place. "NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts. The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC's decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future."
ESPN's Monday Night Football games are aired locally on ABC, providing a way for local fans without cable to view the game.
According to an ESPN report,99-percent of the 2013 regular season games were aired in local markets last year (254 of 256 possible games), the highest percentage of games in league history to have the blackout restriction lifted. The percentage has gone up every decade since blackouts began in the 1970s, when only 50-percent of the games were aired locally. By the 2000s, that number had increased to 92-percent.
Teams have gone out of their way in local markets the past few years to prevent blackouts. In South Florida, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, along with local companies, have bought any un-sold tickets each week in an effort to ensure the games will remain on local television. The last blackout for the Dolphins came in 2000.
None of the first 61 games played this season have been blacked out.
There has been speculation, some of it from the NFL itself, that if the FCC took the step they did today, sporting events could move from free-over-air coverage of games to solely being available on cable or satellite services. The league's statement seems to indicate they will continue to broadcast games on free channels.
The NFL, and any of the sports leagues, could eventually face legislation as well, if Congress wants to get involved and force the league to end their blackout policies. Would it happen, and would it take threat of loss of tax-exmpt or anti-trust status?
Whatever the case, the FCC ended a rule this morning that will likely change nothing about the way NFL games are televised.