NFL Suspends Local Television Blackout Rule for 2015 Season

(Bloomberg) — The National Football League suspended its blackout rule for the 2015 season, meaning all games will be televised in their local markets even if they don’t sell out.

The decision by the league’s 32 owners comes almost six months after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission eliminated a 40-year-old rule enforcing blackouts. The NFL, however, still had the option to enforce blackouts through its contracts with over-the-air broadcasters.

The NFL, which has about $10 billion in annual revenue and the most popular and valuable programming on broadcast and cable TV, said there were no blackouts of regular-season games in 2014. There were two in 256 regular-season games in 2013.

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“This is a big win for sports fans across the country, from Buffalo to San Diego,” FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said Monday in a statement. “When the FCC voted to eliminate our sports blackout rule last September, I called on the NFL to revisit its blackout policy and adopt a more fan-friendly approach.”

The NFL’s decision is a “big step in the right direction,” Pai said. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league will evaluate the impact of the suspension, which applies to the preseason and regular season, in 2016.

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Blackouts have drawn ire from fans and lawmakers, who have pointed out that games not being televised are played in stadiums partly financed by taxpayers. The NFL previously said the rule is needed to encourage stadium ticket sales.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said the decision is a victory for sports fans and consumers.

Congressional Reaction

“This antiquated, anti-consumer rule has for too long served only to protect the NFL’s bottom line at the expense of sports fans,” Blumenthal, a Democrat who partnered with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona in 2013 to introduce legislation to permanently eliminate the blackout rule. “I urge the FCC to take action to permanently remove the rule so that sports fans have the opportunity to cheer on their favorite teams, regardless of where they are watching.”

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In September, the FCC voted 5-0 to end the government’s ban on cable and satellite providers showing games in markets that lack a sellout, and aren’t shown on local TV because of an agreement between leagues and sports teams.

Congressman Brian Higgins of New York said the decision by the NFL was long overdue. Higgins has argued that the policy was unfair to taxpayers who support the financing of stadiums and disproportionately impacted smaller markets like Buffalo. The Bills had the NFL’s last blackout in 2013.

“This is the right move for the league and for the game,” Higgins, whose congressional district includes Buffalo, said in an e-mailed statement. “The fans spoke, the league listened, and this season everyone will be able to tune in to support their favorite team.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net Jay Beberman, Rob Gloster

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