Did the National Football League strongarm broadcast networks and affiliates to purchase blocks of game tickets in order to avoid local blackouts during the 2013 season and to curry political favor?
That's the stunning allegation made by the SportsFan Coalition and four other organizations in comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering eliminating the sports blackout rule.
Comments on the FCC's proceeding, introduced last fall, are due today.
If true, the allegation could mark the beginning of the end for the 40-year rule that is universally hated by sports fans and politicians alike. Even the threat of a blackout—like this season when three of the four first-round playoff games came close—generated outrage, angst and a lot of press.
Sports blackouts on local TV stations, which occur when the local team fails to the sell enough seats in the stadium. More common in recent years, the number of blackouts dropped precipitously from 16 to 2.
"This sudden and stark reduction, which just happen to coincide with the FCC proceeding and bills introduced in Congress, didn't happen by accident," said David Goodfriend, founder and chairman of the SportsFan Coalition in a press call. "We believe that there was more to it."
In the FCC filing, Goodfriend said a senior professional sports executive told him during an in-person meeting that the NFL pressed broadcast networks to purchase unsold tickets to avoid blackouts. "If true, this would amount to coercion of commission licensees in order to increase the revenues of the NFL and its clubs and avoid an embarrassing blackout event for the NFL."
"It's ample evidence of why the rule isn't in the public interest," Goodfriend added.
The commission should investigate, the filing urged. "The commission has a responsibility to ensure that its licensees, as guardians of a public resource...are not strong-armed."
Goodfriend said he didn't know what the retribution would have been if the nets did not comply.
To prove that the blackout policy, which the NFL supports, should be kept on the books, the groups also called for the NFL to produce an audited financial statement of the league and its members teams to support why the rule is in the league's financial interest.
"The NFL has enormous, unchecked market power. They exert it on broadcasters, and they exert it on others and consumers suffer as a result," said Goodfriend. "NFL can end its blackout policy right now. Until it does that, we maintain it is severely against the public interest."
Bills introduced in Congress would strip the NFL of some of its market power by taking away the NFL's nonprofit status and federal antitrust exemption. "These are public subsidies that contribute economic power to what is already one of the most powerful entities in media and entertainment," Goodfriend said.