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Tackling Tech: The Sports Blackout Rule is Gone - What this Means to NFL Fans

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By now, every NFL fan has heard that the Federal Communications Commission voted to Tuesday to eliminate the sports blackout rule it created in 1975 which helped ensure attendance by supporting a ban on telecasts of local games if enough tickets weren't sold in advance.

But what seems to be obscured is that the FCC's 5-0 decision was to kill its own set of rules, leaving the NFL to continue on with its own approach to blackouts (now minus the backing of the federal government).

So let's cut through the confusion, unclear news reports and general noise to determine what it means to NFL fans. I'm not a legal eagle, legislator or NFL policy maker, so bear with me. I'm a fan of America's game, just like you.

Why was the FCC rule created?

It was established in to prevent cable and satellite operators, etc. from airing sports events that were blacked out on local broadcast TV.

Are blackout rules gone now?

No. The FCC ended its sports blackout rules, deeming them outdated and unneeded nowadays. The NFL still has its own approach to blackouts and is free to continue it.

So the NFL can still black out games if enough tickets aren't sold in advance?

Yes.

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Will the NFL continue its blackout policy?

It can, but doing so only hurts itself, its advertisers, sponsors and fans. That's not good for business. Most of the league's blackout specifics are parts in contracts they have with their TV partners.

How specifically does the NFL approach work today?

The NFL's blackout approach/policy bars local broadcast of games for which fewer than 85% of the seats have been sold 72 hours before kickoff, to encourage more fans to attend. Until this week, pay TV providers could not show the blacked out games either.

How does the FCC action change things?

The FCC rule had banned pay-TV providers such as cable companies and satellite providers from airing a game with a 35-mile protection zone if the match has been blacked out on local broadcast TV.

Now, if a local game is blacked out on broadcast TV, pay TV providers are free to televise it over their far-reaching networks.

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However, the league could work with pay-TV carried channels to black out a game on their systems as well.

So what happens now if ticket sales for a game(s) don't meet the minimum?

The team could blackout the game locally, which only happened twice in over 250 regular season games last season.

What's likely to happen?

More of the same from last week and last year. Specifically, word gets out when ticket sales look unlikely to meet the league's minimum number three days before kickoff.

Fearing a blackout that could reduce a wide TV revenue river to a trickle, or worse, the teams involved, and/or the broadcast stations involved, and/or corporate sponsors, and/or advertisers, and/or local businesses buy up enough seats to ensure the shows goes on for local fans.

Last week a group from the above list in Southern California bought enough tickets for the Chargers - Jaguars game to be televised.

The same happened earlier this year when it looked like three of four Wildcard weekend games were going to be blacked out. Catastrophe averted.

Why do these "buyups" happen?

Because being blacked out is bad for business. The entire ecosystem suffers. TV deals, not ticket sales, are by far the leading source of revenue. That wasn't the case in 1975 when the sports blackout rule was created.

What's bad for TV is bad for the NFL, and its business partners.

Was the FCC's blackout rules designed to fill stadiums?

Not according the FCC, though that was the result. This from the agency: "The Commission's objective in adopting the cable sports blackout rule was not to ensure the profitability of organized sports, but rather to ensure the overall availability of sports telecasts to the general public." The FCC rule was later expanded beyond cable. FYI.

Can fans still watch their team's games on free-TV?

If by "free" you mean by tuning into over-the-air signals from local broadcast stations to watch the answer is yes. You don't need to pay for cable, telco or satellite-provided TV packages to see your team.

From an NFL spokesman, post-decision: "NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts," the NFL said. "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."

So what really happened Tuesday?

The FCC killed its sports blackout rule, which was initially created to apply to numerous sports. And by doing so, it eliminated government support/backing for NFL blackouts. What that means is if someone or group wanted to challenge the NFL on this topic, the league would no longer have the backing of the FCC/federal government.

Is that likely to happen?

It could, but it's doubtful because everyone wants the games to be on TV. The rule was relevant when getting folks to games was a challenge and too many seats went unfilled for too long. But with only 2 blackouts last year - San Diego and Buffalo, the focus is on avoiding the business bombshell- and alienating fans.

But what about the tickets that need to be bought up late in the week in some instances?

That's the challenge, even though ticket sale revenue is far less of a money maker than TV deals and sponsorships.

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With so many fans staying home to watch games on their (continually more) affordable big screen TVs (with continually higher resolution, apps and Internet connections) starting years ago, the NFL realized enhancing the fan experience at the stadium was rising up the overall priority list.

To that end, the NFL mandated Wi-Fi connectivity in all stadiums new and old and has created apps like NFL Now, etc. to keep fans connected wherever they may be.

Using the Wi-Fi infrastructure, many teams built "gameday" apps targeted at game go-ers that aim to make everything from traffic reports and finding parking (and your seats) to finding the shortest bathroom line and remote ordering of concessions for express pickup Sunday staples.

Will that be enough?

Maybe not for some teams, especially those in small markets and lacking competitive teams (for extended periods of time).

Ticket pricing is a big sore spot as part of the overall expense of attending a game with friend(s) or family. But, teams are left to set their own regular season prices, so they are free to get aggressive on pricing deals and packages.

Perhaps the best way to address the ticket sales challenge is combine the items already mentioned with a consistently competitive team. Those are the ones that those beyond hard core fans want to go and see in person.

Is that possible?

Anything's possible when you are the top pro sport in the land with a fast growing following that extends beyond the 50 states. Remember, Sunday Night Football was the most viewed TV "show" in 2013 with over 20 million viewers numerous times.

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Also remember that teams are on a far more even playing field nowadays then when the sports blackout rule was created in 1975.

Since then the league has added salary caps, free agency for players and a rookie salary ceiling (to eliminate limitless contracts for first round draft picks). All those are contended to instill parity in the NFL and enable teams to go from worst to first (or at least to playoff contention) in a year.

How will the NFL respond to the FCC action Tuesday?

Well I wouldn't expect the league to be happy, just as anyone/entity that loses a perk/benefit/backer is not pleased. I would expect the status quo with blackouts to continue for now and hope that efforts to use technology to enhance and advance the attendee experience coupled with fan-friendly marketing of tickets and packages eliminates the unsold ticket issue.

However, the on-the-field product has to be competitive. That's up to ownership, general managers, coaches, "cap-ologists," scouts and players.

Bonus Question: For those without a solid tech background, and/or those still unsure why the FCC called its nearly year-old rules outdated consider what I call the "that was then, this is now" thinking that cause the rules to be axed.

In 1975, TV tech was "low" not high as the nation was less than a decade in widespread use of color TV. Technology-driven advances, especially in consumer electronics changed all that forever and continue to redefine viewing of sport.

Think of what only came decades later in tech: affordable big screen TVs, multiple levels of high definition flat screens with complementary apps and web connections, instant replay, all-sports channels such as ESPN, yellow first-down lines, VCRs, DVDs and players, DVRs, remotes, software-powered set-top boxes, video-on-demand, live streaming, social media, oh and the Internet too.

The game has changed as so has the technology that drives viewership and attendance. I'm sure you get the picture now.

Thanks for bearing with me and....

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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