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Blumenthal, McCain Introduce Bill To End Sports Blackouts

(Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced theFurthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2013 – legislation that would decrease the frequency of sports blackouts by requiring leagues to meet basic obligations to fans if they wish to continue receiving substantial benefits from the public. Unfortunately, as a result of outdated and overly broad league blackout policies, fans across the country are often unable to watch their favorite teams because games are blacked out on broadcast stations, cable networks, and Internet-streaming platforms.

Blumenthal said, “Special breaks should be stopped for professional sports leagues that impose anti-consumer blackout policies leaving their fans in the dark. Leagues that enjoy antitrust exemptions and billions of dollars in subsidies and other benefits should give their fans fair access to their favorite teams on TV. This legislation would protect fans who now get the short end of the stick from leagues that treat the public with contempt while continuing to enjoy public benefits. Fans deserve to be put first – or at least treated fairly.”

McCain said, “I am proud to join Senator Blumenthal to introduce the FANS Act, common-sense legislation that addresses archaic blackout policies and regulations that hurt sports fans around the country. While the FCC'S announcement last week that it would consider changes to the sports blackout rule is encouraging – and something we've urged in the past – legislation is still needed to improve this regulatory framework. The FANS Act would return the focus to the fans, consumers, and taxpayers who make these leagues as successful as they are.”

One of the major ways that professional sports leagues generate revenue is through licensing the rights to televise their games to the public. These telecasts may occur on over-the-air broadcast stations or over cable or satellite systems, and, increasingly, over the Internet. The licensing rights for the telecast of professional sports programming are treated in a somewhat unique way under federal law. The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 (SBA) provides broad exemptions from federal antitrust law to the leagues for the purpose of pooling the separate rights to telecast games.

These exemptions from federal antitrust law – as well as direct and indirect public subsidies through tax exemptions and public transportation infrastructure by federal and local governments – are intended to protect and promote professional sports. In practice, however, they do not always translate into benefits to the fans. The FANS Act would ensure that fans are able to watch games they’ve helped pay for. Specifically, the bill would do the following:

 Eliminate the Federal Communications Commission’s sports blackout rules.

  • The bill would remove original language in the SBA that allows leagues like the NFL to require local broadcasters to blackout home games when local stadiums fail to sell out most or all tickets 72 hours in advance of a game. While this policy may have helped increase ticket sales years ago, there is no longer any evidence that it helps to drive fans to stadiums. Rather, current data indicates that stadium sales are much more closely correlated to the size of the stadium, the population of metropolitan area, and the cost of the ticket.

Condition antitrust exemption to prohibiting sports blackouts during contract disputes between broadcasters and cable/satellite distributors.

  • For leagues to enjoy the antitrust exemptions of the SBA, the bill would require leagues to prohibit any video licensee from deliberately removing sports games from a cable or satellite distributor during distribution contract negotiations. This provision ensures that games are not blacked out as a result of contractual disputes between broadcasters and cable or satellite companies. 

Condition antitrust exemption to making home games available on the Internet.

  • For leagues to enjoy the antitrust exemptions of the SBA, the bill would require that a league make a game available, for a fee or otherwise, over the Internet when a game is not available via television through broadcasters or pay-TV. Fans should not have to drive to a nearby town to watch their home team play.

Apply antitrust laws to Major League Baseball (MLB).                                                                            

  • As a result of an historical accident stemming from a Supreme Court ruling in 1922, MLB is the only league to enjoy a broad exemption from the anti-trust laws. The bill would follow the advice of the Court and expressly bring MLB under the Clayton Antitrust Act for the purposes of this legislation only.

In addition to Blumenthal and McCain’s introduction of the FANS Act, U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) introduced companion legislation in the House today.