National Football League owners and executives must be feeling a bit like the once-great New England Patriots surely did Monday night during their 27-point loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
From domestic violence cases to concussion-related health claims, the NFL has been on its heels a lot lately. On Tuesday, the league got sacked again, this time by the Federal Communications Commission.
You can’t say the NFL was blindsided; FCC commissioners had telegraphed their move. But nonetheless, the 5-0 vote to repeal the FCC’s sports blackout rules was a stunning rebuke.
As Chairman Tom Wheeler said a few weeks ago, “There is no better example of an FCC rule that has outlived its usefulness and deserves to be eliminated.”
The blackout rules were adopted nearly 40 years ago, at a time when the NFL depended on ticket sales as its primary revenue source. Today, the league gets most of its money from television revenue. Each year, that pours $6 billion into NFL coffers.
The NFL has claimed that an end to blackouts could force it eventually to remove games from free TV, but the FCC noted the league’s current deals with broadcast networks extend to 2022.
And the fact that blackouts have become increasingly rare—the Buffalo Bills’ home game against the Miami Dolphins three days before Christmas last December was one of only two blackouts in the entire regular season—is no justification for keeping an outdated FCC rule. It also should be noted that two other Bills games last season were aired only because owner Ralph Wilson, who died this year, purchased the unsold tickets.
NFL blackouts have long drawn the ire of fans in Western New York; Buffalo has experienced nine in the last four seasons. The issue came to the fore again with approval in December 2012 of an agreement that calls for county and state taxpayers to help fund $130 million in upgrades at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The FCC order does not necessarily spell the end of the NFL’s blackout policy, which requires a sellout 72 hours prior to a game. While the action removes FCC protection, the league as a private entity can do as it chooses.
If the NFL is smart, however, it will opt to win a few points with fans by retiring the blackout policy.
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