The National Football League, already struggling with off-field woes, took another hit as regulators eliminated a 40-year-old federal rule enforcing TV blackouts of games when stadiums don't sell out.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to end the government's ban on cable and satellite providers showing games in markets that lack a sellout, and aren't shown on local TV because of an agreement between leagues and sports teams. The NFL still could enforce blackouts through contracts with over-the-air broadcasters.
"The federal government should not be party to sports teams keeping their fans from viewing the game," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Period."
Blackouts have drawn ire from fans and lawmakers, who have pointed out that games not being televised are played in stadiums partly financed by taxpayers. The NFL said the rule is needed to encourage stadium ticket sales.
The rule is "completely obsolete and outdated," Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told reporters on a conference call today.
The NFL wasn't a multibillion dollar industry when the FCC enacted the rule in 1975, Mr. Blumenthal said. Professional football is the most popular and valuable programming on broadcast and cable TV, and the NFL has almost $10 billion in annual revenue.
"NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts," Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the league, said in an e-mail. "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."
Only two of 256 regular-season games were blacked out last season, according to the NFL. There have been no local TV blackouts this year through four weeks.
While their vote removed a barrier, FCC commissioners said it was up to the league to do away with blackouts.
May not end all blackouts
"Our vote today may not end all blackouts," said Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the FCC. "We are ending our blackout rule, but professional sports leagues like the NFL can still choose to maintain their own blackout policies."
Broadcasters have said the rules keep cable and satellite providers from using "loopholes" to circumvent league contracts with broadcasters.
Without rules to keep control, leagues might move games to pay-TV, the National Association of Broadcasters said in a filing. Members of the Washington-based trade group include Comcast Corp.'s NBC, News Corp.'s Fox, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and CBS Corp.'s CBS.
The NFL in an FCC filing said its contracts with TV networks don't give it control of actions by local TV stations.
Cable companies can't import game signals from afar because teams control whether TV stations can sell their signals in another market, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a filing.
The trade group supports eliminating the rule, spokesman Brian Dietz said in an e-mail. Members of the Washington-based organization include the largest U.S. cable company, Comcast, and No. 2 Time Warner Cable Inc., which Comcast has proposed buying.
The NFL offered what it called almost 20,000 signatures of fans in FCC filings in a bid to save the rule.
Defeat at the FCC follows other difficulties for the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell on Sept. 19 said procedures had failed after criticism that the league should have been tougher in disciplining Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence.
The league may have to pay as much as $950 million to resolve head-injury claims by former players under an agreement to settle consolidated lawsuits. About 5,000 players have alleged the league didn't disclose risks from repeated traumatic head impacts.
Satellite broadcasters DirecTV and Dish Network Corp. didn't take public positions on the FCC's proposal.
"I don't see this as having a gigantic impact," said Rick Gentile, a former CBS executive who directs the Seton Hall University sports poll. "Those sellout rules haven't impacted NFL ratings in a long time. They're selling out anyway."