Growing opposition to dropping sports blackout rule


The Chicago Bears and the NFL oppose the blackout rule from being permanently lifted.
The Chicago Bears and the NFL oppose the blackout rule from being permanently lifted.

Illinois’ Black Caucus latest to voice objection

With the NFL now selling out stadiums coast-to-coast with the increased popularity of the league, the logic would be the rule that blacks out home National Football League games on TV 72 hours before a game is sold out would be outdated, right?

You might want to think again.

Led by FCC Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the NFL blackout rule – which has been on the books since 1973, would be eliminated. She feels the rule is outdated as NFL games are at full capacity every Sunday amid an era of video changes. The view was also shared by Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who said the government should not be involved in rule making.

But scrapping the rule has run into opposition by the National Association of Broadcasters, who fear cable and satellite systems would import the games from out-of-market, which local TV stations also oppose. Major League Baseball also is against dropping the rule.

For example, say the Chicago Bears are playing the Denver Broncos and the game is blacked out in Chicago. Without the rule, cable and satellite operators could easily import the feed of the Bears-Broncos game to Chicago from the Denver station carrying it, potentially robbing the local Chicago station prohibited from carrying the game millions in revenue.

In recent weeks, opposition to dropping the rule has grown with Fox and CBS affiliates objecting, and now black leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed concern if the rule is scrapped, it’ll make the NFL and other sports teams easier to move games to basic cable or even premium cable, shutting out those who couldn’t afford to pay, particularly in low-income minority areas.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson filed wrote in a letter in objection to dropping the rule, stating it could lead to a dropoff in attendance, thus less employment opportunities for low-income and minorities, he said. He also pointed out TV viewers “should not bear the brunt of the harm, and stadiums should not be robbed of their value, especially in communities with some of the greatest economic needs.” Having full stadiums also would benefit businesses near such facilities.

The Congressional Black Caucus voiced similar objections, stating in a letter of the FCC if the blackout rule was repealed, sports leagues – notably the NFL – would be able to move their games to pay TV if attendance dropped and viewers would have to pay to see their teams – a scenario that could hurt minorities and low-income individuals. They believe preserving the rule would help over-the-air broadcasters in the long term.

Three of the Black Caucus’ Illinois delegation signed the letter – Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd), and Rep. Danny Davis (7th). Together, they represent more than 90 percent of the Chicago area’s African-American population. The rule does have bearing in Chicago as a significant number of games involving six of Chicago’s pro sports teams (as well as the WNBA’s Sky and AHL’s Wolves) are on over-the-air broadcast TV.

But that could soon change: The Cubs are still hunting for a partner to carry 70 or so games starting next season; WGN-TV is reportedly losing money on its current Cubs contract. If the rule disappears, it could be easier for the Cubs – not to mention the Bulls and White Sox, whose deals with WGN reportedly expire in 2016 – to strike new deals which could move their games exclusively to cable.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called a vote to get rid of the rule this fall.

And even if the rule were scrapped, sports leagues can still write those blackout rules into contracts, nor would it prevent local teams from also doing so (the Chicago Blackhawks had such a rule until 2008.)

Before 1973, the NFL prohibited home games from being locally televised.