WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to eliminate a decades-old rule that has prohibited pay-TV providers from airing some home sports games, such as NFL football, if tickets to those games did not sell out.
In a bipartisan 5-0 vote, the FCC did away with a 1975 sports blackout rule that has been backed by the broadcasters and the National Football League but in recent years has faced mounting criticism that it was outdated.
Originally meant to ensure that television broadcasts of sports games did not hurt local ticket sales, the policy has banned cable and satellite providers from carrying sports games in their home markets if a league or a team requires that all or most of the tickets be sold before the game can be shown on TV.
Sports leagues such as the NFL, broadcasters and cable and satellite companies can still privately negotiate blackout agreements. The FCC has said it is often such private agreements, and not the commission’s rules, that prompt home game blackouts.
“It is the leagues that control whether sports fans can watch the games they want to watch. ... For 40 years, these teams have hidden behind a rule of the FCC. No more,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
“It’s a simple fact, the federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the games, period.”
The NFL on Tuesday said it did not plan to stop free broadcasts of its games in the foreseeable future.
Only two NFL games, or less than 1 percent, were blacked out as a result of the rule last season and none so far this year, according to the NFL. In some instances, businesses helped avoid blackouts by buying blocks of unsold tickets.
“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement.
“The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”
The league noted that games shown on cable channels such as ESPN or NFL Network are still broadcast locally.
The NFL and the broadcasters, prior to the vote, had warned that without the blackout rule, popular professional football games may become available only to those who pay for cable and satellite service instead of free over-the-air television.
Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has for months publicly opposed the rule, urged the NFL to view Tuesday’s vote as a call to review its own blackout policies instead of digging in its heels.
“By moving games to pay-TV, the NFL would be cutting off its nose to spite its face,” Pai said, pointing out that the NFL’s contracts with over-the-air broadcasters extend until 2022 and TV contracts are a major revenue source.
The rules that will be eliminated are unrelated to some high-profile longer-lasting blackouts prompted by disagreements over the fees TV operators pay programmers to carry their channels.
Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Dan Grebler