By shelving blackouts, NFL makes Uncle Sam happy

NFL television
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The National Football League's decision to toss its decades-old TV blackout policy is unlikely to make a difference for most fans, but it may keep Washington off the league's back.

The end of the blackouts, which mandated that games needed to sell out 72 hours before kickoff in order to avoid being pulled from free, over-the-air TV in local markets, is "much ado about nothing," said Vanderbilt University sports economist John Vrooman. NFL teams voted on Monday to shelve the rule for the upcoming season.

"This no-lose public relations move attempts to create a singular positive vibe," Vrooman told CNBC in an email.

Blackouts all but disappeared in recent seasons as the league faced increasing pressure from regulators and even Congress to drop the policy. The league's decision to suspend the policy now would largely appease lawmakers, broadcasters and fans despite blackouts' diminishing importance, Vrooman said.

Asked why it ended the policy, the NFL directed CNBC to a statement from Monday that does not address its rationale for ending blackouts, but which noted that "The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games in local markets on free, over-the-air television."

No games were taken off local airwaves last season, while only two matchups were nixed the year before. The drop can partially be attributed to a 2012 modification that allows teams to choose to sell only 85 percent of tickets and still stay on local TV screens.

Still, blackouts faced growing scrutiny. The Federal Communications Commission last fall announced that it would no longer prohibit cable and satellite operators from picking up blacked-out NFL games. Blackout rules were "no longer justified," the FCC said at the time, as the NFL takes in more revenue from TV rights than tickets.

The move didn't prevent the NFL from blacking out games. But it increased fears among broadcast networks CBS, NBC and Fox that satellite and cable providers could pick up contests dropped from local markets, Vrooman said.

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The FCC move came as Congress pushed the NFL to end its blackout policy. Lawmakers even introduced bipartisan legislation calling on the NFL to end blackouts under penalty of losing its antitrust exemption.

By choosing to drop its "counterproductive" rule, the league got ahead of lawmakers and regulators, said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who has written extensively on sports.

"This has public relations value. This is the league saying to consumers, 'We're nice guys. We're not going to black out games anymore,' " Zimbalist said.

Zimbalist added that Monday's announcement of the NFL's first digitally distributed game shows that the NFL wants to "experiment" as streaming programming gains traction. That game, slated for Oct. 25, will feature the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London.

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Blackouts were more prominent in the "gate-driven, infant NFL," Vrooman said. About 50 percent of games were pulled from local markets in the 1970s. The policy, Vrooman said, has lost importance as the NFL has hauled in more in annual broadcast rights fees, which now stand at about $6 billion.

"The long-sought blackout policy change is largely a cosmetic attempt to deflect mounting anti-blackout pressure from the U.S. Congress and to reflect negative blowback from the FCC ruling limiting blackouts last fall," Vrooman said.