The NFL opposed the effort to dump the blackout rule in part by suggesting that the removal of the ability to prevent games from being televised for free in markets where the home team had failed to sell out the stadium would lead to the NFL fleeing free TV generally. Now that the FCC has overturned the blackout rule, the NFL has renewed its commitment to audience-maximizing, three-letter network broadcasts.
“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” the league said in a statement issued after the FCC’s unanimous vote to scrap the blackout rule. “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.”
The term “foreseeable future” implies that maybe, at some point down the road, the NFL’s attitude toward free TV will change. For now, it won’t — in part because blackouts have become largely irrelevant.
Last year, only two of 256 regular-season games were blacked out in the home team’s market. This year, none of the first 61 games of the season have been blacked out.
The push to dump the blackout rule has come in recent years, at a time when the number of televised games consistently met or exceeded 90 percent. In prior decades, when the percentage of televised games fell as low as 41 in 1975 and hovered in the 50s and 60s in the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t a peep about the blackout rule.
Maybe the rise of the Internet has given fans a vehicle for pushing the issue. Maybe the ongoing effort by billionaires to squeeze millions from the public coffers has generated a backlash. Regardless, the blackout rule is dead — and its departure ultimately may not change anything.
Unless a large percentage of fans decides to quit buying tickets and to watch the games at home, knowing that the game will be on even if no one shows up.