Sports Blackouts and the FCC

  • BelchBy Belch

If you were a Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s fan in 2012, you probably had a hard time watching a home game, or six. Tampa’s low fan appearance rates forced an FCC rule into action that pushed the game out of television coverage.

The FCC rule, implemented in 1975, stated that if a home game didn’t sell a certain percentage of tickets before the game then that game couldn’t be shown to local stations. The rule was brought into effect originally to increase profit at sport stadiums, but as a number of factors affect profits and the ability to view games, questioning the rule seems to be becoming more popular.

The original purpose of the FCC’s blackout rule was to protect sports franchises by making sure that the profits from ticket sales weren’t lost to cable providers and home viewing. By enforcing an attendance minimum, fans were forced to go to live games. The FCC expanded this rule to state that if a local station couldn’t air the game, then the national market couldn’t air it either.

This includes any and every sports package across the board; there are no exceptions. So if you are that Bucs fan and you were hoping to watch just about any home game in 2012, you couldn’t watch the game in Tampa or Los Angeles. The area of local coverage affected by the blackout usually extended to 75 miles from the game itself, and then the national coverage would follow suit.

The blackout rule hasn’t been much of a factor in recent years, as teams continue to lower their attendance standards to let their games be shown to the general public. In the 1970’s, the blackout rate was near 50 percent, meaning that most teams that were below a .500 winning percentage would not get their games aired. A low amount of wins meant that games would have a harder time selling out games; nobody wanted to go to see their teams lose. Sometimes teams were close to the 72-hour sell out period before games, with just a few more seats to sell for their games to be aired on television. Often times in these situations, teams would buy their own seats and give them away as charity to bypass the FCC’s blackout rule.

During the 1980’s, blackouts dropped to 40 percent, in the 1990’s even lower. The theme of meeting requirements for ticket sales became a common one, and more often than not a team could be shown on live television. As we came into the 2000’s, it became more likely that fans across the country would be watching a game that was out of their viewing area.

Live streaming over the Internet and national television sports packages were making it easier for people to watch these games. ESPN3 and WatchESPN were great examples of online streaming that brought the games you wanted to watch to your computer screen. However, with the FCC rules still in place, when a game became blacked out, even the Internet options became unavailable.

Many viewers have called for the removal of the blackout rule, stating that it stopped the fans that couldn’t afford or weren’t capable of going to a game from watching. The financial aspect of ticket sales seems obvious; if you cant afford to attend a home game, then you most likely would be watching from your house. However, there are certain cultural aspects of sports and the environment that comes with it that keep fans from attending games. For example, there have been documented cases of fan violence, sometimes resulting in death.

There have been a few of these incidences documented in high crime areas, southern California being one particular hotspot discussed in depth. Deaths and fan violence between fans in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland have been the focal point of gang violence, forcing a crowd who might be less equipped to protect themselves away from live games. Some sports teams with these violent stereotypes often have a hard time selling out their stadiums, forcing a blackout in the surrounding areas.

Recent talks have been circling about the removal of the rule entirely, stating that it would give the freedom of viewing games where they please back to the fans. Some of the details point to an exclusive blackout at the national level, and not the local. This would give those fans that couldn’t afford to support their local teams the ability to cheer from home.

Generally speaking, most of the profits from sports franchises rely less on ticket sales and more on marketing and commercial sales. There are still a few sports and sports teams that would see a greater struggle with the rule being removed, while most would only see a slight drop financially. The FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn addressed this issue in a recent interview:

“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 . . .”

The Chairwoman also implied that the FCC should not be involved in any area that it isn’t needed. It’s no doubt that the blackout rule could use some revision to accommodate a new culture and economy, but removal of the rule altogether could benefit the fans located all across the country greatly. Of course there is going to be a certain amount of fight put up by both sports teams and cable providers, but if the FCC is working in the best interest of the viewer, the rule could see its end in the near future.

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3 years ago
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