There is no sports league more popular, more valuable or more profitable than the NFL. The NFL's new television deals with Fox, CBS and NBC will net the league more than $27 billion through 2022, according to a report in Forbes—and that doesn't include the league's deals with ESPN, Westwood One and DirecTV. All together, the contracts alone will bring approximately $200 million a year to each team.
This week, however, one of the NFL's long-standing policies is being questioned by five U.S. senators and a national fan's organization, who are asking the Federal Communications Commission to end the league's TV blackout rule. The policy states that a home game can't be televised locally if it's not sold out 72 hours ahead of kickoff.
In a letter to the FCC, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan called the blackout policy "a relic of a different time" and said that "it is time for [it] to end." They further commented that "These blackouts are ruining the experience of rooting for the home team and are unjustly hurting fans."
The Sports Fans Coalition, a nonprofit group trying to give fans a voice on policy issues, submitted an online petition to the FCC to get the league to do away with the policy.
The NFL disagreed, saying the blackout rule "supports contractual provisions that are fundamental to broadcast television and thereby enable universal distribution of high quality content, including NFL football, to all Americans and to our fans—all at no cost to those fans. Sports blackout policies, supported by the FCC's sports blackout rule, promote live attendance and thus improve the stadium experience."
Evan Weiner, author of The Business & Politics of Sports, recently discussed the blackout policy.
What is the history of the policy?
According to Weiner:
In 1949, the Los Angeles Rams drew a total of 300,000 to games at the Coliseum then in 1950 they began to telecast Rams home games in the greater Los Angeles area and that year the team drew only about 145,000 fans. After the season then NFL Commissioner Bert Bell urged teams to blackout home games in an effort to keep the people in the stands for home games instead of in front of the television. By 1953, the NFL was in the courtroom defending its blackout policy, an opinion supported by Judge Allan K. Grim, who upheld the league's blackout policy believing that it was not in violation of anti-trust laws.
Blackout policies resurfaced in 1957, when the NFL Championship Game was blacked out in the host city of Detroit despite being a sellout. The blackout policy was challenged again in 1962 when the Giants hosted Green Bay in the NFL Championship at Yankee Stadium. Judge Edward Weinfeld upheld the NFL position and denied an injunction, which would have forced CBS to televise the game in the New York City area. The blackout policy would remain in effect until 1973, when Congress passed the legislation that is in place today requiring any NFL game that was declared a sellout 72 hours prior to kickoff be made available for local TV.
Is the rule outdated?
The blackout law is totally outdated. It was meant for a time when the gate made up the majority of a team's revenue for a season. That would go back to the days when it was more of a mom and pop league. While you might have been able to make a case for the rule even through the early 1980s with the multi-billion dollar television contracts that the league now has, the only fair thing to do is to do away with the blackout.
After talking to Weiner as well as reading what the league position was, it is clear to me that the NFL needs to give the fans home broadcasts. The ratings are not going down and if the team begins to win, then it will drive the interest in going back to the stadium.
We are really only talking about a handful of cities where there are blackouts: Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, San Diego and Oakland. In all those cities, they do get sellouts and it is not all the games that fall under the blackout rule.
So the most successful league in sports that has done a number of outstanding things for the fans needs to go one step further and drop the blackout rule.