Few Sports Fans Weigh in on Blackout Rule

WASHINGTON: Fewer than 100 sports fans have weighed in on a rule allowing professional leagues to black out TV coverage in markets where venues aren’t sold out. So far, however, most are on the same page:

“It’s time to end the sports blackout rule,” Florence M. Keleher wrote. “It is an unnecessary and anti-consumer regulation that only benefits team owners. Fans and taxpayers have already heavily subsidized professional sports, so blackouts are unethical and [they] punish fans who can’t afford the high cost of attending games.”

The Federal Communications Commission asked for feedback on the rule last month at the request of the Sports Fans Coalition. The group petitioned the FCC to repeal the blackout rule, saying “the public interest would be served by eliminating an unnecessary regulatory prop for an obsolete league practice.”

Feedback’s been light so far, but it’s likely to increase as the filing deadline approaches. Comments are due Monday; replies are due Feb. 28. Of the 80 or so filed to date, all but two called for eliminating the blackout rule.

Keep it, says Peter A. Nigro, but reduce the lead time. Leagues can now declare a blackout 72 hours before game start. “I think the time frame should be reduced from 72 hours to maybe 48 or 24 hours instead,” he wrote.

Maneesh Pangasa of Yuma, Ariz., a prolific commenter on a variety of FCC dockets, urged the commission to combine its blackout and retransmission reviews and come back with a la carte cable pricing. “I believe the best solution for consumers is to allow us to choose what channels we want,” he wrote.

Pangasa and Nigro were shouted down by folks from Buffalo, N.Y., where the Coalition took out anti-blackout ads on local TV over Super Bowl weekend. Bills fans there endured three blackouts last season. Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) took to the House floor earlier this month, calling for an end to the TV blackouts. “This is a matter of fan fairness,” he said, according to Business Insider.The stadium in Buffalo seats 73,000--more than one-quarter of the city’s population.

“As an octegenarian football fan in a small market with a huge stadium and a terrible team, I remain a staunch Bills fan who would like to see all the games broadcast on TV,” said Harriet M. Block.

The Sports Fans Coalition noted in its petition that between escalating ticket prices and the imploded economy, fewer people are able to attend games. Many of the comments reflected as much. 

“Being a long-time Bills fan--I’m 73--I look forward to watching my home team on TV, since I can’t afford to attend the games in person,” wrote Lorrie Filipski of Buffalo, N.Y. in ahandwritten note.

Several people noted that their taxes help pay for the sports venues at issue, including Patricia A. Rebmann of Gowanda, N.Y.

“My husband and I are senior citizens and find it almost impossible to attend any games with my husband’s physical condition,” she wrote. “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.”

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the blackout policy in his State of the League press conference, according to The Cincinnati Inquirer (opens in new tab).Goodell said game availability on free TV had to be “balanced” with driving people to stadiums.

“We want our stadiums full, and we want to continue to stay on free television,” he said.

The stadiums themselves are also a point of contention for the Sports Fans Coalition. Its executive director, Brian Frederick, recently testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee in support of a bill to eliminate auto rental taxes to fund new stadiums.

“Professional sports in America has become a glorified real estate scam, where individual owners prey on fan loyalty in order to manipulate massive public subsidies toward private coffers using tools such as car rental excise taxes,” Frederick said in his written testimony. “Team owners play cities off one another, threatening to uproot teams from their fan bases and move them to a new city in order to get the public to approve hundreds of millions of dollars for new stadiums. Once the stadiums are built, owners raise ticket prices and black out the games if fans don’t buy tickets.”

The commission will take comments on the blackout rule on docket No. 12-3 through Monday.
~Deborah D. McAdams