Shed Some Light on Sports Blackouts

Last Thanksgiving weekend, the NFL Cleveland Browns travelled in-state to play the Cincinnati Bengals. The game was not a sell-out, and under FCC rules, the Bengals exercised their option to blackout the over-the-air broadcast of the game on local television stations in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Lexington. This decision raised the ire of thousands of Bengal fans, which in turn prompted Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to ask the FCC to revisit its blackout rules.

Personally, I find that this is an interesting issue. I certainly understand that consumers want to be able to watch their local sports teams for “free” on their home televisions. And I also understand that many of those communities have provide all sorts of tax breaks and other financial incentives to build local stadiums for those teams. (The Bengals’ stadium reportedly cost the taxpayers more than $450 million.)

On the other hand, those same teams generate a lot of money in terms of wages, taxes, and tourism which often repays the taxpayer investment many times over. And I’m a bit puzzled that consumers somehow feel entitled to view an event for which admission is charged. I view it as a generous gift to the community that the teams give the broadcast to hometown viewers, and it makes sense that they only do this when the game has sold out. To force them to give away the coverage when they have not sold enough tickets is much like exacting a tax on the teams because the broadcasts make it even less likely that fans will buy tickets. We don’t expect concert promoters to provide free covereage of all concerts that are put on in that same taxpayer-subsidized stadium; why should football be treated differently?

And if the local community thinks that free local coverage is important, then there is no reason why a “no-blackout” clause could not be included in the contract with the team the next time they want taxpayer money to help build a stadium. Again, the choice to black-out local coverage is an option, and the decision to do so lies with the team.

But as fascinating as my view might be, it doesn’t matter what I think. The FCC is asking for consumer feedback on the issue. The bad news is that few people have taken advantage of this opportunity, and the deadline for input is next Monday, February 13.

So here’s your chance to weigh in on the discussion. You can file a comment online at the FCC website at Let your voice be heard in D.C. about whether the sport blackout rules should be changed.