In response to a petition filed by the Sports Fan Coalition, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, National Consumers League, and League of Fans, the Federal Communications Commission has invited public comment on existing sports blackout rules (Eggerton). Currently, if a local sporting event is not sold out then it is blacked out, meaning local broadcasters cannot air it. The petition seeks to eliminate the blackout rules so that when an event is not sold out, local fans can view it. On its face, eliminating the blackout rules appears to favor fans, especially when ticket prices to sporting events are $100 and upwards. However, closer examination reveals that broadcasters will significantly benefit from lifting the rules. The rules impact three constituents: fans, media, and sports leagues.
Sports leagues depend upon broadcasting rights fees for income. The media are willing to pay exorbitant rights fees because sports allows them to access the desirable male viewer; sports programming differentiates them from their competitors; and usually, they are able to charge much higher advertising rates for sports programming. Therefore, the sports leagues are in a desirable bargaining position because they have exclusive content that media want. Hence, media’s demand for content has driven broadcast rights to unprecedented levels. For example, the amount of the current NASCAR broadcast fees contract, which began in 2007, is forty percent more than the previous one (“NASCAR Revs Up”). My point is that the media pay a lot to broadcast sporting events and when local events are blacked out they lose revenue because they do not have airtime (and viewers) to sell to advertisers, which in the end, hinders their ability to recoup their investment. The allure of sporting events rests upon the media’s overarching goal of minimizing risk and maximizing profit. Sports are low-risk content with high profit potential; hence, their appeal for media.
As I mentioned, eliminating blackout rules appears to be a boon for fans. Instead of buying tickets for the live events, they can view them at home via cable, broadcast, or satellite television, which in most cases they are already paying monthly subscription fees. The FCC petition was filed by supposedly fan-friendly organizations, but these organizations are funded by Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications (Schatz). League of Fans, Sports Fan Coalition, and the other petitioners do not appear to be intertwined with the media. However, the media’s funding of these organizations demonstrates the burgeoning political influence of the media. In this case, the broadcasters are not contributing to candidates’ campaigns or paying for lobbyists. Yet, their deep pockets allow them to ride piggy-back on apparently non-partisan, non-profit causes. In reality, eliminating the blackout rules benefits broadcasters tremendously – maybe even more than fans. If broadcasters can air sold-out events, fans viewing at home are subject to intensely commercialized content that the media construct in order to recover their investment. Overall, this case exemplifies how the media wields influence, political and otherwise, over what fans see and don’t see.
Along with economic hardships, “marketplace changes” are another rationale for reviewing the current rules. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell says, “Over almost four decades, the economics and structure of both the sports and communications industries have experienced tremendous evolution” (Eggerton). McDowell’s statement naturalizes the current economics and structures of the industries. He implies that eliminating blackout rules is a natural progression in the trajectory of the media/sports marriage. In effect, he is perpetuating the notion that the current structure of the media occurred naturally; what is good for big business, or media in this case, is good for the public; and technology has rendered the current rules obsolete. His reasoning, and its underlying mythology, is reminiscent of the sociocultural environment when the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed.
I have not delved into two other significant elements of this debate. First, sports leagues oppose eliminating blackout rules because they need to sell out stadiums which in most cases are publicly funded. Second, I have not investigated possible linkages between ownership of the news outlets reporting this story and broadcasters with a vested interest in eliminating the blackout rules. When I first read the story, it appeared as if the FCC was moving beyond big media’s interests to consider sports fans. While the FCC has not ruled on the petition, the debate at this point seems to be heavily skewed in favor of the media. Yet, the media’s interest in the outcome is camouflaged as public good.
Eggerton, John. “FCC Puts Petition Seeking Elimination of Sports Blackout Rules Out for Public Comment.” broadcastingcable.com. Broadcasting & Cable, 12 Jan 2012. Web. 20 Jan 2012.
“NASCAR Revs Up Rights Fees.” Broadcasting & Cable 135.53 (12 Dec 2005): 23. Web. 3 Oct 2007.
Schatz, Amy. “FCC to Review Sports Blackout Rules.” wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 12 Jan 2012. Web. 20 Jan 2012.