Tom Wheeler thinks it’s time to sack the National Football League blackout rule. And as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he may be just the guy who can do it.
Wheeler has scheduled a vote for Sept. 30 on a proposal to end the nearly 40-year-old rules, which were enacted back in 1975, prohibiting cable providers from airing a game that has been blacked out on the local television station because it was not sold out.
That's a situation that Wheeler says belongs in the era of fender skirts and buggy whips, when barely 40% of games sold out and gate receipts were the league's primary source of revenue.
"Last weekend, every single game was sold out. More significantly, pro football is now the most popular content on television," Wheeler said yesterday on his blog. "NFL games dominated last week’s ratings, and the Super Bowl has effectively become a national holiday. With the NFL’s incredible popularity, it’s not surprising that last year the League made $10 billion in revenue and only two games were blacked-out."
The NFL and major broadcasters are opposing Wheeler's proposal, arguing that it would jeopardize pro football on "free" TV, meaning over-the-air broadcasts. They say eliminating the rule would endanger stadium attendance and threaten local businesses.
Wheeler's not buying that argument.
“Clearly, the NFL no longer needs the government’s help to remain viable,” he said.
“To hear the NFL describe it, you would think that putting a game on CBS, NBC or Fox was a money-losing proposition instead of a highly profitable multibillion-dollar business,” he wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. “If the league truly has the best interest of millions of American fans at heart, they could simply commit to staying on network television in perpetuity.”