Support Marketplace

NFL and the FCC square off over TV blackouts

An overhead shot of an NFL game.

The Federal Communications Commission is thinking about eliminating what’s known as the "sports blackout rule," which says NFL games can’t be broadcast locally unless they’re sold out 72 hours in advance.

The debate pits government authority against NFL brawn.

The NFL likes things the way they are: The blackout rule fills stadiums, and fans – even teams — will buy up extra tickets to make sure the stadium is full. 

If not, the game can’t be broadcast within a 75-mile radius. 

Hall of Famer Lynn Swann is the NFL’s spokesman in the blackout rule showdown. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champ says the NFL could move its games to cable TV if the blackout rule were repealed. The rule allows everyone to watch NFL games right now, he says. 

“And it protects a model that allows it to be over the air and free for everyone when the games are sold out,” he explains.

Also on Swann’s side: the Congressional Black Caucus. Caucus members wrote a letter to the FCC, saying minority fans who can’t afford cable rely on free TV broadcasts of games.

“In my view, that argument doesn’t hold water for a couple of different reasons,” says Ajit Pai, an FCC commissioner.

He's on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pai is demanding that the blackout rule be repealed. He says the NFL is bluffing, and would never take games off free TV because the broadcasts are so profitable.

“Taking the product off the air is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face, ” he says.

Sports economists have been watching anxiously from the sidelines. 

Rob Baade teaches economics at Lake Forest College. He thinks we should use economics to decide the fate of the blackout rule. 

Do the benefits of the rule outweigh the costs? He says no, it’s not fair to require fans to shell out hundreds of dollars to go to a game, and black it out if they don’t.

“And so, $75 a ticket, add to that parking, concessions and paraphernalia, I mean it’s a very expensive family outing,” he maintains.

The FCC could vote on whether to repeal the blackout rule as soon as this fall.

In the meantime, you could just listen to the game on the radio. The blackout rule only applies to TV. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...