NFL Blackouts Fight Finally Goes To FCC

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WASHINGTON ( MainStreet) -- When we first spoke with Brian Frederick about NFL television blackouts back in October 2010 , his Sports Fans Coalition had just begun meeting with FCC commissioners in an attempt to get the rule changed.

More than a year later, Frederick and his fan advocacy group's pleas have been heard. Last week the FCC agreed to review the NFL's blackout policy, which dates back to an act of Congress in 1961 that prevents home games from being shown by TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the stadium if tickets aren't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The commission will be taking public comment through February on a rule it wrote in 1975 that bolsters that NFL policy by requiring cable and satellite stations to refrain from broadcasting games blacked out by local broadcasters.

Anheuser-Busch performed some Bud Light bailouts of Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars games last year.

There were 16 NFL games blacked out in their home markets this year, leaving fans of the San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers without television access to games played in stadiums paid for with taxpayer money -- as 31 of the NFL's 32 stadiums are. The NFL argues that this year's 6.3% blackout rate is down compared with 8% of games between 2001 and 2010, 31% of games in the 1990s, 40% in the 1980s and 50% in the 1970s. Before the government intervened in 1973, all of a team's home games were blacked out.

Despite the NFL's newly signed television deals with ESPN(DIS) , ABC, NBC(CMCSA) , CBS(CBS) and Fox(NWS) that will boost NFL revenue more than 60% by 2022, the NFL and its spokesman Brian McCarthy continue insisting that the blackout policy is selling tickets, keeping the stadiums nice and full for TV audiences and keeping the games on air. Last summer, the league told the FCC in a filing that lifting the blackout rule "would gut the purpose of the rule and create perverse incentives for cable and satellite companies to engage in brinkmanship tactics in order to take advantage of the proposed exception to the sports blackout rule."

Frederick, the Sports Fans Coalition and several allies disagree, arguing in their petition that it is the blackout rule itself that is perverse, "anti-consumer and anti-fan." The group argues that in a time of persistently high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and consumer uncertainty," even one blackout is too much.

Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Verizon(VZ) , which would benefit greatly if the cable blackout was lifted, have give the coalition their financial support. The petition the coalition presented to the FCC in November had the backing of policy and advocacy groups including the Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, the National Consumer League and the League of Fans, a sports-reform group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) voiced his support of the FCC's decision last week after a Bengals season that featured six out of the team's eight home games blacked out in the midst of a playoff run.