Are you ready for some politics? The FCC v. the NFL

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It’s Sunday. Or Monday night. Maybe Thursday. Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?! “Why yes,” you tell the TV, “yes I am.” But the choice isn’t always yours, especially if you live in a small market. Your local NFL game could be subject to a dreaded “blackout” law. That’s right, we said a LAW. A law about who can watch football, when they can watch it and why.

A law shaped and argued, enacted and retracted under the influence of lobbyists…people doing the same thing as One Click’s customers: trying to get Congress’s attention.

Image via Getty Images/Harry How

Image via Getty Images/Harry How

The NFL blackout law, enacted in its most current form in 1975, originated as a Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) ruling. It dictates that an NFL game must be sold-out 72 hours prior to kick-off in order for the game to be televised in its local market.  If not, the game can be blacked out to both home and away markets, including a 75 mile radius of each city. Yikes. Hope you and the boys enjoy cracking some cold ones and firing up the grill for an Everybody Loves Raymond marathon.

Ironically, the FCC’s law originated as a means of controlling the NFL. In the 60s and early 70s, when the NFL’s primary source of income was ticket sales, the blackout rules were worse. Lots of games were blacked out, for lots of different reasons. Die-hard fans would be known to travel to hotel rooms outside the blackout radius just to catch a game.

In fact, there’s an old story that the feds’ interest in NFL blackouts was initiated when Nixon himself wanted to catch a ‘Skins game that was being blacked out. The President reportedly called the then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle who refused to lift the blackout. Within days, according to political legend, the Congress and the FCC were investigating the legality of blackout rules.

Accidental advocates, take note: Congress is no different than any other body of humans…they go where the story is. Could the recent Congressional interest in the NFL have more to do with Ray Rice on elevators and Adrian Peterson with tree branches rather than a sudden concern for football fans? Some say most definitely.

Where there is smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s fire, there are politicians.

When the FCC’s law was finally enacted, it was super-strict. It heavily favored the league and its owners, and it created mayhem for the media outlets interested in broadcasting football. If a similar law existed in any of the other major sports, the effects would be catastrophic. For example, the Florida Marlins didn’t sell out a single game this past season. If bound by the NFL’s rules, their television contract would have been voided. Could the franchise have survived such a blow?

The NHL, the NBA and MLB don’t have the selling power to swing the blackout rules. The Arizona Coyotes, for example, would yet to have had one of their games broadcast. Even in markets like New York and Chicago, blackouts would rule televised sports.

But the NFL is different. Only two games were subject to blackout in 2013. While sixteen games never saw the screen in 2011, all of those games occurred in Cincinnati, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Some markets, like Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington, have never had a game blacked out. You’d have to go back almost 40 years for the last time a New York football game missed TV.

All of this is important because the NFL has pretty much grown up with television. The game and the medium are paralleled in ubiquity. Football is made for TV. The fast-pace. The hitting. The cheerleaders. When a TV camera follows a quarterback’s bomb downfield, restricted visibility adds suspense that is simply absent in person. Plus, football is only played once a week. It’s played outside during cold months. Tickets are expensive. Oh, and drunk people go to football games. Aren’t you and little Joey Namath safer on the couch with your customized Jets jerseys, your Jets throw blankets and your store-bought guacamole?

Americans seem to think so. The NFL is an unprecedented TV titan. Sorry baseball, football is America’s past-time. Sure, baseball has history on its side. It has folk lore and Ken Burns. It even has better popular music. Ever hear “Centerfield” by John Fogerty? Ever hear “The Superbowl Shuffle” by the Chicago Bears? ‘Nuff said.

Yet, the bottom line is that more people watch the NFL each week than live in Australia (it’s just over 20 million if you’re counting). For TV, it’s a Netflix and streaming video-proof ratings darling worth millions in weekly revenue. So, in many cases, with ad dollars hinged on game telecasts, the TV stations themselves often buy the empty seats at a given stadium to avoid blackouts. If not, they couldn’t broadcast the games, or they’d be breaking US federal law.

Well, not anymore. Last week, the FCC voted unanimously to lift the blackout regulations on NFL games. Now, if the NFL wants to black out a game they have to ask, beg or otherwise threaten to pull their product from the media outlet. They are left to their own, albeit, multi-billionaire devices. But the government plays no roll. And while broadcasting a not-so-sold-out NFL game might be a breach of contract, it will no longer be against the law.

The NFL, already reeling from years of bad press brought on by domestic abuse from star players and continually surfacing data on the dangers of concussions, sees this as a huge blow. To combat its effects on their bottom-line, they are already threatening to adopt a pay-per-view only stance to broadcasting. Hello, NFL Network. Bye-bye CBS.

The FCC, though, is proud of itself. Commissioners called the blackout law antiquated and unfair for fans. “It is the commission’s job to serve the public interest, not the interest of team owners,” said Ajit Pai, an FCC commissioner. “No longer will we be on the side of those willing to keep fans in the dark.”

“It’s a simple fact, the federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the games — period,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Some fans disagree. A commenter on a Variety article explained it as “socialist.” He felt the ruling were “liberal attacks on sports.” The commenter echoed the NFL’s assertion that lifting the blackout would “discourage fans from attending games.”

According to NPR in Boston, “The organization lobbying loudest against the blackout rule, the Sports Fan Coalition, does have ties to Verizon and Time Warner Cable. They agree that cable and satellite operators have a lot to gain.”

No matter what side you’re on, the NFL is under Congressional heat. The heat stems from a disgruntled public. While people aren’t shutting off the big games, the NFL is learning a lesson about how the United States Congress responds to public anger. Rally enough troops and the Capitol responds, but is this a fair hit on the NFL, or does Uncle Sam deserve a fifteen yard penalty?

Well, what do you think? Does government have a place in televised football? Is this vote a win for anti-trust? Or, is it a veiled ruse by cable companies? Will this force the NFL into pay-per-view? Does that matter? Does government have a place in such regulations? How far should public entities be willing to go in regulating corporate entertainment? 

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