Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Five U.S. senators called on the National Football League to stop barring television broadcasts of games that lack a sellout crowd, as the league told regulators the practice benefits fans.
“It is time for the NFL’s blackout policy to end,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission yesterday. The agency is considering voiding a rule that prevents cable and satellite companies from showing professional sports events when the local TV station is blacked out by contract.
The senators signing the letter, all Democrats, were Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, where 6 of 8 home games by the Cincinnati Bengals were blacked out last season.
“These blackouts are ruining the experience of rooting for the home team and are unjustly hurting fans,” the senators said. “That many of these stadiums were constructed or remodeled using taxpayer dollars underscores the disservice done to fans by blackouts.”
The NFL told the FCC that “just 16 games last year out of 256 regular season games” were blacked out. The rule, which dates to 1975, is aimed at ensuring that enough fans attend games.
The blackout rule “enables fans to enjoy programming made available by the NFL and its broadcast partners on free, over- the-air television while also promoting the excitement of a live game with full stadiums,” the NFL said in a filing.
In the 1974 season just before the rule went into place, 58 percent of games were blacked out to home audiences, and that percentage has dropped to 6 percent in the most recent season, the league said.
“These numbers show that the league’s decades-long commitment to promoting each week of the NFL as an event that attracts wide fan support is working, both for fans in the stadium and fans watching on television,” the NFL said. “The current system is working and should not be altered.”
The National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC the rule prevents cable and satellite providers from circumventing leagues’ contracts with broadcasters. Eliminating the rule would “hurt local broadcasters and their viewers and could accelerate the migration of popular sports programs from free to pay TV,” the Washington-based trade group said in its filing. Members include Comcast Corp.’s NBC, News Corp.’s Fox, the Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and CBS Corp.’s CBS.
The NFL in December signed contract extensions through the 2022 season with CBS, Fox and NBC.
The FCC is considering a petition filed in November by groups including the Sports Fans Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group. The organization has accepted funds from Time Warner Cable Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., Brian Frederick, its executive director, said in an interview.
The Sports Fans Coalition in its filing yesterday said the FCC should repeal the rule because it supports “blatantly anti- fan, anti-consumer behavior by professional sports leagues.”
The filing was also signed by the Washington-based policy groups Public Knowledge and Media Access Project; the National Consumer League, which says it works for economic justice for consumers; and the League of Fans, a sports-reform project founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment. The agency faces no deadline to act.
--Editors: Michael Shepard, Steve Walsh
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