Senators Introduce Bill to Curb Sports Blackouts

FANS Act would rewrite 50-year-old local broadcast rules

Never underestimate a lawmaker’s desire to make sure football games get aired in his market.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), two lawmakers who have been outspoken on sports blackouts, are co-sponsoring a bill to decrease the frequency of local blackouts.

Introduced Tuesday, the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2013 would eliminate the Federal Communications Commission’s sports blackout rule, but would also take away the NFL or other major league’s antitrust exemptions to collectively negotiate rights deals if they include blackout provisions in carriage deals.

Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion bill in the House.

The bill follows former acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn’s proposal last week to eliminate the FCCs rule which prohibits a cable or satellite provider from carrying a game when the local TV broadcast is blocked out because of poor attendance. 

“While the FCC’s announcement last week that it would consider changes to the sports blackout rule is encouraging—and something we’ve urged in the past—legislation is still needed to improve this regulatory framework,” McCain said, by way of announcing his sponsorship of the bill.

Last year, 15 National Football League games were blacked out in local markets when the hometown franchise failed to fill the seats. The teams that imposed blackouts during the 2012 NFL season were the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

Neither Clyburn’s proposal nor the FANS Act would totally eliminate the leagues’ ability to insert blackouts as part of their contracts, but it might help.

For leagues to benefit from the antitrust exemptions they currently enjoy, the bill would require the prohibition of any video licensee from removing sports games from any distributor during retransmission negotiations. Leagues must also make a game available, for a fee or otherwise, over the Internet when it is not available via TV through broadcasters or other pay TV services.

“Leagues that enjoy antitrust exemptions and billions of dollars in subsidies and other benefits should give their fans fair access to their favorite teams on TV,” Blumenthal said. “This legislation would protect fans that now get the short end of the stick from leagues that treat the public with contempt while continuing to enjoy public benefits. Fans deserve to be put first, or at least treated fairly.”

The NFL was not immediately available for comment.