Blowing the whistle on the TV sports-blackout rules

November 15, 2013

November is a pro-sports fan's delight, with four major-league sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS) offering seemingly endless viewing opportunities on TV or online. That is, as long as you don’t run into the dreaded sports blackout, a situation that has long frustrated fans. Basically, if most or all tickets to an event aren't sold, the game typically can't be aired in the local market.

Federal rules that require sports blackouts date back to the early 1970s. The beneficiairies of the rules were team owners, whose revenue streams relied heavily on ticket sales. The argument for the rules was that airing games on TV would keep people from paying for tickets—and, once at the game, from spending money on parking and concessions.

The rules are outmoded. Over the last four decades, dramatic changes in the marketplace have generated millions upon millions of dollars in additional revenue sources for the leagues. Plus, many teams take advantage of antitrust exemptions, subsidies, and other special benefits that are often bankrolled by taxpayers.

That has led some in Washington to question whether it’s time to change the rules for sports blackouts. Last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to curb the practice, the cleverly named FANS Act; FANS stands for Furthering Access and Networks for Sports.

The bill would bench the FCC’s sports blackout rule and eliminate antitrust exemptions for the leagues to collectively negotiate deals to air games if they include blackout provisions in their contracts.

Separately, the FCC has signaled that it is taking a hard look at dropping its blackout rules itself. The proposals by Congress and regulators would not necessarily eliminate all blackouts across the board, but they would go a long way toward making them a thing of the past.

Blumenthal said: “Special breaks should be stopped for professional sports leagues that impose anticonsumer blackout policies leaving their fans in the dark. Leagues that enjoy antitrust exemptions and billions of dollars in subsidies and other benefits should give their fans fair access to their favorite teams on TV. This legislation would protect fans who now get the short end of the stick from leagues that treat the public with contempt while continuing to enjoy public benefits.”

McCain said: “I am proud to join Senator Blumenthal to introduce the FANS Act, commonsense legislation that addresses archaic blackout policies and regulations that hurt sports fans around the country. While the FCC's announcement last week that it would consider changes to the sports blackout rule is encouraging—and something we've urged in the past—legislation is still needed to improve this regulatory framework.”

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes it's time to get rid of the woefully outdated sports-blackout rules for the sake of the fans. After all, the fans contribute greatly to the teams' financial success. We strongly endorse the FANS Act  urge the FCC to keep the ball moving so you can have greater access to the games.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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