Consumer groups look to end sports blackout rule

The Sports Fans Coalition has teamed with the Media Access Project (MAP), the League of Fans, the National Consumer League and Public Knowledge to ask the FCC to lift its sports blackout rule.

Sports Fan Coalition, the largest nonprofit fan advocacy organization in the country, filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC asking the agency to bring the controversial rule to an end.

"This is the biggest organized effort in decades to put an end to the federal government's support for anti-consumer blackouts," said Brian Frederick, the Sports Fans Coalition's executive director. "It is ridiculous that the leagues continue to black out games from their own fans after taking in massive public subsidies, during such difficult economic times, and even more ridiculous that the federal government props up this practice through the sports blackout rule."

The FCC's sports blackout rule stipulates that when a league tells a local broadcaster not to televise a game because the stadium did not sell out, no other TV provider can carry that game. It was adopted in 1975 without any mandate from Congress at the request of sports leagues and broadcasters who claimed that such a rule was necessary to keep games on broadcast television.

"It is absurd that the government still props up the sports leagues with an outdated and unnecessary rule written four decades ago," Frederick said. "The FCC's blackout rule simply helps to perpetuate the anti-consumer practice of withholding sporting events from fans who cannot afford tickets to games, even when those fans helped to subsidize sports through public funding, laws and regulations."

The NFL disagreed with the petition. "The policy has been successful in striking a balance between encouraging fans to attend games and allowing the games to continue to be broadcast on free television," said Dan Masonson, an NFL spokesman. "The NFL is the only sports league that broadcasts all of its regular-season and playoff games on free television."

In a conference call with reporters in September, Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, the network that carries NFL games, told the press members not to look for the NFL to lift its broadcast blackout rule anytime soon. He said the league and Roger Goodell, its commissioner, have been "pretty insistent" that the rule, over the course of its lifetime, has been good for the league, its broadcast partners and the teams.

Last June, in comments in the FCC's retransmission consent proceeding, the NFL told the FCC to leave the rule as is.

"Sports fans are in essence partners with sports teams via the numerous public subsidies and tax advantages that the teams enjoy," said Ken Reed, sports policy director for the League of Fans. "As such, television blackouts from taxpayer-funded stadiums and arenas are an unconscionable form of fan abuse and should be stopped immediately."

In its petition to the FCC, the group wrote "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 who charge exorbitant prices for tickets, then punish fans by blacking out games from television because a few seats remain unsold.

"Moreover, when professional and collegiate sports enjoy vast public subsidies in the form of taxpayer-funded stadiums; federal anti-trust exemptions; roads, highways, and public transit serving sports arenas; tax-exempt status for professional sports leagues; state and federal grants to public universities; and other support, the public — sports fans — should be able to watch the games that they helped to finance."