Updated 06:23 AM EST, Sun, Dec 05, 2021

Sports Business SOS: US Senators John McCain & Richard Blumenthal Look to End the NFL "Black Out" Rule

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Senators John McCain (R- AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are looking into changing the National Football League's (NFL) "black out" rule, which requires local broadcasters to not televise games if the local NFL team did not sell out the stadium.

The NFL rule was tweaked last summer, with the league lowering the threshold to a stadium being 85 percent for the game to be broadcasted in the local market, but both McCain and Blumenthal do not believe that is enough considering the tax breaks NFL owners get to build their facility using local tax dollars.

"When the venue in which these sporting events take place has been the beneficiary of taxpayer funding, it is unconscionable to deny those taxpayers who paid for it the ability to watch the games on television when they would otherwise be available," said Sen. McCain Los Angeles Times.

The change in the NFL's "black out" rule is a provision - named Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2013 - that was included in the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013 bill, which would change the business practice, chipping away at the NFL's antitrust exemptions to collectively negotiate rights deals if they include blackout provisions in carriage deals. Congressman Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion bill in the House.

The provision is back by The Sports Fans Coalition, an advocacy group that has pushed for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get rid of the rule, arguing that it prevents fans who cannot afford tickets to the game or are physically unable to attend games in person from watching their local teams play on TV. 

"Sen. McCain and Sen. Blumenthal are true friends of the sports fan," said David Goodfriend, chairman of the Sports Fans Coalition to TheHill.com. "They understand that taking away games, especially when those games use public funds, is just plain wrong. And in this case, a federal rule that props up sports blackouts is just plain wrong."

Sen. McCain's and Sen. Blumenthal's proposal comes on the heels of former acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn urging the government agency to take look into changing the "black out" rule. Last season, 15 NFL games were blacked out in Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, San Diego, and Oakland after the teams failed to sell out their games. This year, there have been no games blacked out with teams buying the remaining the unsold tickets at 34 cents to the dollar to lift the local television ban.

"Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games," said Clyburn in a statement. "Elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent the sports leagues, broadcasters, and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events."

Sen. McCain and Sen. Blumenthal will likely face resistance to the provision in the bill, with Sen. McCain no longer a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight over the FCC and the media industry. The two senators will also encounter opposition from NFL owners, looking to protect their antitrust exemptions and willing to spend millions on lobbyist to protect their business interest.

But Sen. Blumenthal believes that the provision can pass considering it has the best interest of the fans in mind, noting the fact that NFL owners benefit greatly from tax subsidies and benefits bestowed upon them to help run their facilities.

"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," said Blumenthal. "This legislation would protect fans that now get the short end of the stick from leagues that treat the public with contempt while continuing to enjoy public benefits. Fans deserve to be put first, or at least treated fairly."

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