FCC Needs to End Sports Blackouts

Monday, 07 Jul 2014 05:12 PM

By Bradley A. Blakeman

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Every now and then, the little guy wins. Now could be just such a time, if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler acts soon.

Sports fans are on the cusp of a major victory against the crony capitalism, special-interest regulation propping up the NFL’s anti-fan blackout policy. Late last year, in response to a petition from Sports Fans Coalition, on whose board I serve, the FCC voted 5-0 to propose ending the 40-year-old sports blackout rule.

The sports blackout rule says that any time the NFL orders a local broadcaster to blackout a game because tickets have not sold out, cable and satellite operators also must black out the game. The FCC’s notice concluded that market forces could replace the outdated regulation because the NFL was a sophisticated enough player to handle its own blackout policy without help from the federal government. It seemed as though the FCC had gotten it right.

The FCC has completed its legally required public comment period on its proposal to end the rule, with fans, economists, conservative policy advocates, consumer advocates, and industry stakeholders all agreeing that the rule should go.

Thousands of fans have commented on the record, including a Vietnam War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, an elderly couple, and a disabled woman, all of whom said that a local blackout does not impel them to buy a ticket because they cannot go to the stadium; they are cut off from the team they love and that they helped to finance through their tax dollars spent on constructing the stadium.

Predictably, only the professional sports leagues and the broadcast industry argued to keep the rule.

The only step now left for Chairman Wheeler is to call a final vote of the commission. I believe he has a unanimous set of commissioners willing to vote “aye.” The question is, Will Wheeler call the vote in time?

The NFL, sensing that it is about to lose a high-profile fight in Washington, D.C., taking away one of its many taxpayer-funded subsidies, is fighting like mad. They have sent former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann around the country on a public relations distortion tour, with Swann taking to the airwaves to say that the FCC’s rule is necessary to keep NFL games on broadcast TV. (Baloney, say nine noted economists:T he NFL makes much more money from its broadcast contracts than from selling a few more seats in stadiums.)

Clearly, the NFL is going to try to scare the FCC into backing down. Every day that passes gives the NFL another chance to save its precious special-interest federal regulation.

Moreover, if there is any question about giving the NFL time to adjust to a new regulatory situation, the FCC could simply vote today to end the rule in a year, giving the NFL plenty of time to make adjustments.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote to Wheeler asking for a vote before the start of this year’s NFL regular season. Wheeler replied in a recent letter that he has asked the staff to present its recommendations by “early fall.” This may be too little, too late.

First, it gives the NFL too much time to continue its scare tactics and distortion campaign. The NFL is the most powerful marketing machine in the history of the planet; why give them more time to cause problems when there is unanimous support for a final action right now?

Second, Wheeler still has not committed to calling a vote. He says that he has asked for a staff recommendation by early fall but makes no mention of when he will take action himself and call a vote.
There’s an old rule of thumb in legislatures across America: when you have the votes, take the roll call and drop the gavel the second you get your majority. When you don’t have the votes, delay. For some odd reason, Wheeler is turning this on its head and delaying a vote, even when he has unanimity right now.

Chairman Wheeler, on behalf of sports fans across America, please, call for an immediate vote to end the sports blackout rule.

Bradley A. Blakeman served as deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001-04. He is currently a professor of politics and public policy at Georgetown University and a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion. Read more reports from Bradley Blakeman — Click Here Now.

 


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