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FCC votes to end NFL blackout rule

The NFL has employed a blackout rule since the 1950s. It was voted down by the FCC on Tuesday.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to eradicate the NFL blackout rule, according to Pro Football Talk. All five FCC commissioners voted unanimously to end the broadcast rule, which blocks local broadcasts if the home team doesn't meet sellout requirements, that has been in place since 1975.

While the FCC has voted to abolish the blackout rule, the NFL still has it on its books and can use it, per Edward Wyatt of the New York Times. The question remains how much power the FCC has over the NFL to keep blackouts at bay, something that will be discovered in time.

The wheels were put in motion in 2013 when U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and U.S. Representative Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) put forth legislation that would take away the NFL's broadcasting antitrust exemption unless the blackout rule was lifted.

The blackout rule came into effect when teams did not sell out 85 percent of their non-premium tickets for a home game within 72 hours of kickoff. In such an event, the designated "home area" for viewers would be blacked out, leaving fans unable to watch their local team on television.

Though the vote doesn't entirely do away with the rule, it has been praised nonetheless. Sports Fan Coalition chairman David Goodfriend released a statement calling the vote "historic."

"Since 1975, the federal government has propped up the NFL's obnoxious practice of blacking out a game from local TV if the stadium did not sell out. Today's FCC action makes clear: if leagues want to mistreat fans, they will have to do so without Uncle Sam's help."

The NFL blacked out home games for all local markets regardless of ticket sales from when games were first televised in the 1950s until 1973, because owners feared that fans would watch at home for free instead of paying to attend games. In 1973, a law was passed that changed the rule to only blacking games out in local regions if the contest was not sold out, which the FCC has supported since 1975. The NFL was the only sports league that carried a blackout policy.

In the event of blackouts, fans from the local area could either go outside the coverage zone to watch their team or view a game from outside their region. The blackout applied even if a fan had a viewing package such as NFL Sunday Ticket through DirecTV.

Blackouts have not been a huge problem in recent years. In 2013, only two games were blacked out on local television, according to the New York Times. In 2011, 16 games were blacked out, all coming from either Buffalo, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay or San Diego. For the NFL's part, the league wrote to the FCC in defense of its stance, per the N.Y. Times.

"By ensuring that televising games will not reduce live attendance, the sports blackout rule encourages sports leagues to reach deals with broadcast networks," the N.F.L. wrote in its pleadings to the commission. If cable and satellite carriers were able to get around the league’s blackout policy, the league said, "the eventual result likely would be a decrease in the amount of professional sports on broadcast television."

The NFL tried to keep the blackout rule in place by launching its Protect Football on Free TV campaign, which said that the league might be removed completely from free television if the blackout rule was done away with. However, nothing appears to be coming of that since it would be counterproductive in a variety of ways, including limiting the audience which would hurt growth and revenue in advertisements.