Blumenthal, McCain Re-Introduce FANS Act to End Sports Blackouts

Legislation would require sports leagues to end blackouts in order to continue receiving federal antitrust exemptions

(Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) re-introduced the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2015 – legislation that would end sports blackouts by requiring professional sports leagues to meet basic obligations to fans in order to continue receiving substantial benefits, including exemptions from antitrust law. Because of the outdated and overly-broad league blackout policies, sports fans across the country are often unable to watch their favorite teams because games are blacked out on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. Earlier this year, the National Football League (NFL) suspended its blackout policies for the 2015 season, enabling millions of sports fans to access local NFL games this year even when stadiums fail to sell out, but the league has not committed to extending the suspension beyond this season.

We’re throwing the flag on these anti-consumer tactics and putting more games in front of the fans that deserve to see their favorite team play,” said Blumenthal. “The FANS Act would ensure fans have rightful access to the live games of their favorite teams, regardless of where they live. It is unconscionable that we continue to allow special breaks and deals for professional sports leagues that impose anti-consumer blackout policies and leave their fans in the dark. While the NFL has volunteered to lift its blackout policy for this year, they can chose to reverse course at any time, and fans still face blackouts in baseball, hockey and basketball. This bill is a comprehensive approach that addresses blackouts in whatever form they take.

The FANS Act is about ensuring that loyal sports fans aren’t the ones who have to pay the price for outdated rules and unfair league policies,” said Senator McCain. “For years, sports leagues have been blacking out broadcasts of sporting events at the expense of the very taxpayers and fans they rely on to subsidize million-dollar stadiums. Leagues should have to meet basic obligations if they wish to continue receiving substantial public benefits from fans, such as an exemption from federal antitrust law. With the FCC’s recent vote to eliminate the federal sports blackout rule and NFL owners’ decision to suspend the league’s blackout policy for the current season, it’s clear that momentum is on the side of sports fans. But blackouts can and do still occur. It’s time for Congress to pass the FANS Act and spike sports blackouts once and for all.

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 NFL’s 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 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 on 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 live telecasts – made possible through public policy and public subsidies - are not held hostage as a result of contractual disputes between broadcast or cable channels 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.