Blackouts of sporting events occur because cable and satellite providers must follow league rules about local broadcasts. Traditionally, sports teams order local blackouts to encourage ticket sales or because franchises have granted exclusive broadcast rights to specific networks or stations. One example of this policy is the NFL, which orders local blackouts of broadcasts if games haven’t sold out 72 hours before game-time.
Why television providers blackout certain programs
Sports fans express concern over sports blackouts, but stations and networks can choose not to broadcast shows for various reasons such as censorship, contract disputes and even local restrictions. Cable systems often choose not to broadcast certain shows because time-zone differences could cause premature revealing of time-sensitive information that spoils regular broadcasts. Local stations often preempt television shows to broadcast local news, disaster coverage or special programs.
Most television blackouts involve home-game sports competitions involving local teams. Each sports league and association has its own rules about local blackouts, and some games get rebroadcast about 90 minutes after live games end.
- Baseball game restrictions apply regardless of whether a team is playing at home or away.
- Hockey television ratings, which are fairly low, don’t prevent blackouts in popular urban markets.
- NBA games get pulled from cable, satellite and over-the-air stations.
- Blackouts apply to boxing, golf and other sports and include playoff games.
Examples of blackout situations
Real-world examples of blackouts occur almost daily, and loyal fans have suffered for more than 40 years because of rules designed to encourage ticket sales. Prior to 1973, all local teams were blacked out regardless of ticket sales. Examples of real-world blackouts include the following games:
- Greatest game ever played
In 1958, the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts played in a game known as the “greatest game ever played.” The game was blacked out in New York, and enthusiastic fans rented hotel rooms in Connecticut to watch the game.
- Washington Redskins playoff
The Washington Redskins made the playoffs in 1972 for the second time in 27 years, but District fans faced an automatic blackout despite a sold-out game. Not even pressure from presidential fan Richard Nixon could persuade NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to lift the ban.
- Super Bowl
Prior to 1973, all Super Bowl games were blacked out in the host teams’ cities.
- Rockets and Lakers
A great real-world example of sports blackouts would be a game between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. Although local fans could watch the game on KCAL-9 in Los Angeles or FSN-Southwest in Houston, the game would be blacked out on local cable and satellite subscription packages in both markets.
- Bizarre Major League Baseball blackouts
Major League Baseball uses a complex formula to determine local territories for its team franchises, which results in Iowa and Las Vegas being considered home territory for six franchises. Furthermore, MLB rules about blackouts are based on contractual obligations and not ticket sales or FCC rules.
Changes in blackout policies
Blackout rules change periodically, but most cable and satellite providers inform subscribers about the status of upcoming games on interactive programming guides. NFL rules define local or home team territory to include all areas within a 75-mile radius. If NFL home games aren’t sold out 72 hours before game time, then games aren’t broadcast locally.
Other sports leagues and associations have similar rules, but many critics of these policies suggest that the reasons for sports blackouts have become outdated because franchises have many new sources of income to supplement ticket sales and people can follow sports and games over the Internet. Blackouts limit options for every television programming distribution service, but NFL fans might enjoy an end to local blackouts in 2014.
Hope for eliminating NFL blackouts
NFL games, the most popular televised sports events, cause the most controversy among diehard fans when games get pulled from television broadcasts. The Federal Communications Commission recommended eliminating NFL blackouts in December of 2013.
- Senator John McCain proposed the end to NFL blackouts during the summer of 2013.
- The FCC only plays a minor role in sports blackouts but has provisionally approved lifting NFL blackouts over which it has jurisdiction.
- Affected parties have 60 days to comment on the ruling, so fans can expect a decision in early spring of 2014.
- Lifting of FCC-sanctioned NFL blackouts won’t change other sports leagues’ policies but could put pressure on these organizations to update antiquated broadcast rules.
Historically, television audiences in local sports-franchise markets have suffered blackouts of some of the highest profile games of all time. Cable and satellite subscribers can rest assured that their service providers make every effort to broadcast local games when legally possible. Check local programming guides to find out whether a game is scheduled for broadcast. Fans who have games blacked out on subscription services can often tune in to local broadcast channels, watch games on delayed broadcasts, follow games on radio or check for score updates over the Internet.