FCC urged to end sports blackout rule

By Frederic J. Frommer

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 5:44 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Most people weighing in on a sports blackout rule are urging the Federal Communications Commission to scrap it.

Monday is the deadline for public comments on a petition by the Sports Fans Coalition to rescind the rule, which bars cable and satellite systems from carrying a sporting event that is blacked out on local broadcast television stations. The rule has effectively reinforced the NFL's own policy, which blacks out games in home markets that aren't sold out 72 hours ahead of time.

The agency has received about 140 comments, and an overwhelming majority favors the petition. That doesn't count nearly 3,000 the Sports Fans Coalition also sent in from people clicking an email on the group's website urging that the rule be repealed. The FCC grouped all of those in one filing, under "individual comments from fans." Many of those urging the FCC to eliminate the rule argued that taxpayers have helped pay for the stadiums and should not have their home games blacked out.

Five Democratic senators filed comments with the FCC Monday urging it to reform the sports blackout rule.

"These blackouts are ruining the experience of rooting for the home team and are unjustly hurting fans," wrote Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. "That many of these stadiums were constructed or remodeled using taxpayer dollars underscores the disservice done to fans by blackouts." They called the NFL's blackout policy "a relic of a different time."

Several comments came from fans of the Buffalo Bills, who had three of their seven games in Buffalo blacked out last season.

Patricia Rebmann of Gowanda, N.Y., complained that residents in that area help pay for maintaining the stadium through taxes but often cannot watch the home games on TV. Rebmann said that she and her husband are senior citizens and find it nearly impossible to attend games with her husband's physical condition.

"Please, please, please do whatever it takes to lift the NFL's blackout rule so we can reap a few hours of entertainment for our tax dollars," she wrote.

Brandon Bulkley, a self-described Kansas City Chiefs fan from Roeland Park, Kan., urged the FCC to "side with the little man for once, because without us there would be no money-making Goliath called the NFL."

One of the few people in support of the rule, Peter A. Nigro, urged that the cutoff for blackouts be reduced from 72 hours to 48 or 24.

"I think without a blackout rule of some kind ... that stadium attendance would be affected somewhat by it," he wrote.

The National Association of Broadcasters said in its filing that while it sympathized with fans frustrated over blackouts, elimination of the rule "would hurt local broadcasters and their viewers and could accelerate the migration of popular sports programs from free to pay TV."

In its filing with the FCC Monday, the Sports Fan Coalition and other groups called the sports blackout rule "a regulatory backstop to an obnoxious and outdated league policy ... At a time of persistently high unemployment, sluggish economic growth, and consumer uncertainty, the sports blackout rule supports blatantly anti-fan, anti-consumer behavior by professional sports leagues."

The Sports Fan Coalition receives money from Verizon, which provides pay TV, and has received funding from Time Warner Cable in the past, but insists it is "driven by fans."

The NFL had not yet filed its comment as of early Monday evening. At his news conference before the Super Bowl, Commissioner Roger Goodell noted that the league had only 16 blackouts in 2011, and the NFL has to balance making games available on free TV with encouraging fans to come to the stadium.

The number of blackouts has decreased steadily over the years: 50 percent of games in the 1970s (after the 1973 law), 40 percent in the 1980s, 31 percent in the 1990s, and 8 percent in the 2000s. Last season's 6 percent was the fifth-lowest, according to the NFL.

But some teams still have high numbers. The Cincinnati Bengals had six of their eight home games blacked out last season, for example, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were blacked out five times.

The NFL's own blackout policy, which applies to broadcast TV, is much less restrictive than it once had been. Until 1973, the NFL blacked out all home games, whether they were sold out or not. That year, President Richard Nixon signed a law preventing blackouts of games that were sold out 72 hours ahead of time, and when the law expired, the NFL agreed to make it a league policy.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that in 1972, the NFL turned down a deal from Nixon in which the league would allow playoff games to be televised in the hometown city, and the president would block any legislation requiring regular-season home games to be televised as well. The story was based on a previously unreported tape recording, now in the National Archives, of a telephone call between Nixon and Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst.

Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer

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