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The National Football League and the "Blackout Rule"

By Thomas Carter

Football is a predominant force within our country's athletic culture, with the National Football League (NFL) at the forefront. Watching football on television has remained a constant over the years, and competitive online gambling and fantasy football have ushered in an entirely new perception of the game and its components. However, unbeknownst to many NFL consumers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in control of regulating the broadcast of live games. Lately, the FCC has done away with a regulation over television known as the "blackout rule." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reed/sports-blackout-rule-on-i_b_5830880.html).

The blackout rule is a method used by the FCC to withhold the broadcasting of games under particular circumstances. According to the FCC's website, "[a] 'sports blackout' occurs when a sports event that was scheduled to be televised is not aired in a particular media market. A blackout may prevent transmission of sports programming on local broadcast networks and/or non-broadcast platforms such as cable and satellite television." (http://www.fcc.gov/guides/sports-blackouts). Additionally, sports blackouts occur when a franchise does not sell a "certain percentage" of its tickets for its games. Id. "Notably, the NFL is the only league whose local blackout rule centers around stadium attendance." (http://www.forbes.com/sites/aliciajessop/2014/09/30/the-fccs-elimination-of-the-sports-blackout-rule-is-not-a-touchdown-for-nfl-fans/). Generally, teams determine the threshold ticket sales required to avoid blackout. Id. Franchises generally determine this required percentage at "between 85 and 100 percent." Id. Ralph Nader, a staunch opponent of this practice, believes that the NFL has held the fans "hostage" for years through the rule. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reed/sports-blackout-rule-on-i_b_5830880.html).

The FCC is working to ensure that consumers are constantly given a steady stream of games, regardless of regional ticket sales. The main argument made before the FCC encapsulated the beliefs of "thousands of everyday sports fans," as well as sports economists, Congressmen, business associations, and academics. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reed/sports-blackout-rule-on-i_b_5830880.html). These advocates suggested that blackouts do not accomplish the primary objective of improving ticket sales, and, as a result, "hurt fans." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reed/sports-blackout-rule-on-i_b_5830880.html).

While the blackout rule has many advocates, there may be potential problems with entirely eliminating it For instance, franchise owners may support the reinforcement of the rule, as it may cause greater demand for tickets. Further, fear of broadcast blackout may draw more fans to their teams' games on game days. Additionally, these ticket purchasers may become eager customers for merchandise and refreshment shops located throughout the NFL stadiums. This could potentially generate even greater revenue to the teams, which could be used in drawing popular athletes to such financially high-generating franchises. Further, the NFL has expressed concern that completely eradicating the blackout rule "would lead to the NFL fleeing free TV generally." (http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/09/30/after-fcc-vote-nfl-reiterates-its-commitement-to-free-tv/).

At the present time, it appears that the blackout rule is mostly gone. While the ultimate results in revenue and ratings are yet to be determined, millions of fans will ultimately benefit in knowing that their home teams' games will be broadcast each Sunday, regardless of ticket sales. However, NFL franchises have a potential countervailing interest in continuing enforcement of the blackout rule, as they want to maximize ticket and merchandise sales. Whether the abolition of the blackout rule will lead to increased happiness for both parties is yet to be determined.

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