Sports Blackout Rules – by Wanda Fenimore

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.

Works Cited

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.

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8 thoughts on “Sports Blackout Rules – by Wanda Fenimore

  1. It seems that sports blackout Rules will be probably eliminated at this point of discussion. That will do a favor for fans like me. I’d like to watch the games at home if the place where the games are held far away, price of ticket is too high, or I just do not have much time going to watch. As for the public funded stadiums, they have to be prepared to admit that since the trend seems to be clear. They need to come up with other ways to ensure the sporting events are sold out or approximately sold out. One effective way may be that they’d better strengthen their fan base and attach more “things” to fans——intangible or tangible, feelings and decorations, everything that helps, thus to arouse and expand a specific local sporting topophilia. They need to let local fans love more the stadiums. This could help to fill the stadiums up with people and leave no worry about losing money. Just to remember, “it is the team stadia which evoke more topophilic response than any other places in terms of stimulating feelings of affinity and affection. Often, sport stadia represent a material focal point-a veritable shrine-for communities of team supporters.” (cited from Dr. Newman’s teaching materials) Also, the stadiums can use “heterotopias of time”, improving their “hall of fame” and exhibiting objects and pictures from all times and styles throughout the team and stadium’s history, to reconcile the time to make a utopian place for everyone. Of course, furthermore, these public funded stadiums can reach out to work with media. I don’t see any impossibility here.

  2. The issue of blackouts for sporting events can cause a great deal frustration with the fans of a local team. Personally I know from experience being from Detroit and being a Lions fan all my life. Just up until recently the Lions were horrible and their stadium was so big that they could hardly ever get the attendance ratios where they needed to be for the games to be on television. I agree that sooner or later the blackout policies will be done away with in football or at least restructured so that the NFL’s blackout policy mimics those of the NHL and MLB. It is my understanding that the NHL and MLB’s blackout policies are not based upon attendance ratios they are based upon regional coverage and privately owned networks such as MSG and WGN. As you pointed out I believe lifting the blackout policies will be a benefit to a majority of the parties involved. It will allow fans to watch their local team regardless of the ticket prices, time restraints and other factors hindering them from attending the game live. It will also help the media outlets because they will be able to sell their advertising rights and be able to guarantee and audience.

  3. Blacking out sporting events is tough not only on the local fan but also the local community. When the events are blacked out there is a lack of advertising time which hurts local and national companies hoping to reach out to fans. If blackouts are lifted I believe there will be an uproar among the teams and respective leagues. For example, although the NFL is widely considered the most successful sporting league of the “big four” professional sports, there are a handful of teams that seriously lack attendance. Teams such as Jacksonville and Carolina struggle to fill the stadium as is and therefore if the blackout rule is lifted they may see even more empty seats. I am somewhat surprised to hear that the FCC commissioner is in support (or expects this to happen) of lifting the blackout rule. However, when ESPN started putting multiple sports on television every night people thought they were crazy too. All things considered, as a fan I would hate to have my game blacked out but understand that without fan support the teams may not survive in those markets and therefore do not see the blackout rule being lifted as a legitimate solution.

  4. I would definitely have to agree with what Cody is saying about how the NFL should seriously consider restructuring their blackout conditions to at least be similar to those of the MLB and NHL. While I believe lifting these blackout restrictions would not only benefit the fans, but media as well, I do not see it happening anytime soon. I unfortunately had to experience these blackouts first hand as a Yankee fan attending Rutgers Univeristy. Rutgers did not have the YES Network as part of their cable package and even when games were supposed to be on ESPN, they would be blacked out because I was still within the regional network area. I could see how this would be especially frustrating for fans who are not local and can’t attend games or watch them at home when they aren’t within range of local broadcasting. Either way, I believe that these policies have to be changed to benefit not only the media but fans as well. I also do not believe that broadcasting more games will diminish fan attendance at games as the experience is completely different. People go to the live game because it evokes certain emotions, they are fun and exciting (even when the home team loses), and if anything, they are a social gathering place where you get to interact with friends and fellow fans and just have a good time. Unfortunately, the sports industry is extremely political and these blackout restrictions aid those who have the power to remain at the top. While I don’t see it happening soon, I believe these policies really need to change to benefit the consumers.

  5. As sports fan we all clearly agree that we would love to see the blackout rules changed. Blacking out games does not allow a fan base to grow. So many of my friends from Florida are Atlanta Braves fans. Whenever I ask them why they always say the same thing “because they were always on t.v. when I was growing up.” Maybe if more Tampa Bay Rays games or Marlins games had been televised these teams would have been able to snatch up the local youth into their fan base instead of Atlanta.
    While the fans and teams would benefit we also realize that the media is pushing this issue because they will gain the most in a monetary sense. To be honest as a fan, that doesn’t bother me. If the media companies are making more money and I get to see the game I wasn’t able to go to, for whatever reason, so be it; at least I’m getting to see my team play and enjoying myself.

  6. For a south florida fan like myself, blackout games seem to be a way of life for us as sports fans. The Florida Marlins would have what seemed like 12 people at the games, so many times they would get the blackout treatment. As well as their are so many times my Dolphins get replaced on local tv by a team that has no affiliation with people in South Florida, but b/c nobody wants goes to the games they assume that people do not want to watch them either. This is especially irritating since I work on the weekends, but at a place that shows the games. But many times I walk into work and my team is not being shown because they are not as popular as a different team playing at the same time.If I had the time to go to the games I would, they have many great deals for families and college kids to help get fans out to the stadiums. The stadiums are already losing probably a ton of money from having to be open to pay all the workers and the electricity, and so on, so might as well advertise the game on television. So then atleast the costs for the rights of the game can help make up for the nights losses for the park. I think there are plenty of people that watch the games and are interested, but because of work or not being able to get to the games hinders many, but that does not mean it should be blacked out. Especially for fans of teams that are not in the location of where the team plays, television is their only way of seeing their team compete.

  7. Blacking out events does hurt the people the media, fans, and corporate sponsors. But undoing the clack out rules may hurt the sport and arenas. The sports blackout rules are supposed to help bring fans into the stands in areas that attendance has been lacking. The ideals behind the blackout rules make sense. The people who are able to come to the stadium should come to the stadium. The problem now becomes that the people who can come to the stadium still aren’t coming to the stadium. When people are not at the games the atmosphere of the arena changes, athletes attitudes towards their stadium and teams also changes.
    In order for everyone to be happy I would propose a modification to the blackout rules. It is still important to have the people who can attend the games come to the games but at the end of the day it is important for everyone who is involved to make money. But what is good for big business is not always good for the fans. There has to be a middle ground of compromise that can be reached. I would propose the numbers reflect the amount of people who have season tickets. My main problem with the blackout rule is it has goal number of fans in attendance for all of the stadiums. Each stadium should be treated as its own entity.
    More research should be done on whether or not blacking out games is a deterrent from people not attending.

  8. When we think of blackouts and those that occur in the sporting world, the first thought that comes to mind is the fan and what these blackouts mean to the fans of these sports. I am from the North and we have not experienced many issues regarding games being blacked out. As a fan, it is very frustrating to have to deal with this to not be able to see and watch your favorite sport team play. Stadiums are losing money, vendors are losing money, and cities/towns are losing money all because of these blackouts that occur through the media. I agree with you on the fact that the media pays 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. This then 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. I beleive that this is true, it just becomes hard when viewers are more likely to sit at home and watch the games from their own couches and television sets. I beleive that these policies do indeed need to change in order to cater to the consumer. This is important in order to maintain the respect of the fans in the overall sense of this issue regarding blackouts.

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