WASHINGTON – The 40-year-old federal sports television blackout rules, which on occasion have left frustrated Buffalo Bills fans unable to watch their beloved team, appear headed for the dustbin of history.
The Federal Communications Commission on Friday proposed eliminating the rules, which the National Football League, in particular, relied on in setting its blackout policy.
“Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games,” said Mignon L. Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the FCC.
The official end of the blackout rules is probably many months away, as the FCC filed the idea as a proposal in the Federal Register and will have to seek public comment before making a final decision on it.
And even if the FCC officially eliminates its blackout rules, that doesn’t preclude sports leagues, broadcasters and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating deals to black out certain sporting events in individual markets.
Nevertheless, the FCC’s proposed change will put pressure on the NFL to abandon its blackout policy, said Matt Sabuda, president of the Buffalo Fan Alliance and the leading local figure in the effort to get the NFL to ease its television blackout policy.
“This is probably the tipping point to get the NFL to get rid of its blackout rule altogether,” Sabuda said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league will review the FCC proposal.
“But it is worth noting that there have been no local TV blackouts of NFL home games through the first 133 games of the 2013 season,” Aiello said.
But the Bills’ Oct. 13 home game against the Cincinnati Bengals was on target to be blacked out until team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. bought up the remaining available tickets two days before the game.
And blackouts are nothing new to the Bills. Two games were blacked out last season, and a total of 19 Bills games have been blacked out since 2000, Sabuda said.
The NFL’s television contracts bar local stations from airing games in a team’s home market if they don’t sell out 72 hours before kickoff, and the rules that the Federal Communications Commission now wants to eliminate force cable and satellite TV providers to obey the league blackout policy.
Both the FCC rule and the NFL’s version have been under assault, though, from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and other lawmakers.
“Blackout rules are unfair, outdated and alienate dedicated fans,” Higgins said.
Higgins has been making that case in Congress in recent years and has won increasing numbers of lawmakers to his side.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., teamed with Higgins last year to press the NFL to ease its blackout policy. And this year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced legislation that would decimate the NFL’s blackout policy by requiring all home games that are played in publicly financed stadiums to be televised.
Sabuda credited Higgins, too, with pressuring the FCC into a change of heart.
“He has taken the initiative all on his own to push the FCC to change the blackout rule and to keep this issue in the public eye,” Sabuda said.
And Higgins isn’t done pushing yet.
“We will be asking the full FCC board to follow through with this recommendation and the leagues and teams to embrace the change as a way to reach a larger audience and do the right thing for their fans,” Higgins said.