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F.C.C. Thinking About Eliminating Television Blackouts Of Sporting Events

Empty bleacher seats in the upper deck of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Photo by Matt Warren.
Empty bleacher seats in the upper deck of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Photo by Matt Warren.

The Buffalo Bills failed to sell out their final three home games of the 2011 season. Yesterday, the Federal Communication Commission began a series of events that could lead to the elimination of the practice in the National Football League and beyond.

The FCC said yesterday it was seeking public comment on whether to eliminate or change the rules for television blackouts of sporting events.

“We’re asking the government to get out of the business of propping up sports blackouts,” said Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, which filed a petition in November to end the F.C.C.’s blackout rule with four other interest groups. “The F.C.C. has had the rule since the 1970s and has never taken a comprehensive look at it.”

The rules have changed before on television blackout. All local sporting events used to be off television within a 75-mile radius to make tickets to the game more valuable. The 1964 AFL Championship, for instance, was not shown on television in Buffalo despite being sold out.

The rule made fundamental sense four decades ago when first instituted. From 1973 to 1979, only half the NFL games sold out and were broadcast. From 2001 to 2010, the number of blackouts fell to only 8%. In publicly funded stadiums, the rule makes much less sense. NFL teams are being supported by massive television contracts and taxpayer dollars.

In cities like Buffalo, it will be a welcome relief where even good teams have had problems selling out. The 1993 AFC Wild Card game that became the Greatest Comeback in NFL History was blacked out.