Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) reintroduced the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports Act of 2015 (FANS Act), legislation that would effectively end sports blackouts. Specifically, the bill would require professional leagues to meet basic obligations to fans in order to continue receiving substantial benefits, including exemptions from antitrust law. Because of outdated and overly broad league blackout policies, sports fans across the country are unable to watch their favorite teams when games are blacked-out on broadcast stations, cable networks, and internet-streaming platforms. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted to eliminate its federal sports blackout rule. The National Football League (NFL) also suspended its blackout policies for the 2015 season, enabling sports fans to access local NFL games this year even when stadiums fail to sell out. However, the league has not committed to extending the suspension beyond this season.
“The FANS Act is about ensuring that loyal sports fans aren’t the ones who have to pay the price for outdated rules and unfair league policies,” said Senator McCain.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 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.”
“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,” said Senator Blumenthal. “This measure would ensure fans have rightful access to the live games of their favorite teams, regardless of where they live. While the NFL has volunteered to lift its blackout policy for this year, they can choose 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. 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.”
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 rights to telecast games.
The FANS Act would effectively end the NFL’s blackout policy by removing original language in the SBA that allows leagues like the NFL to require local broadcasters to black-out 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. Current data indicates that ticket sales are much more closely correlated to the size of the stadium, the population of metropolitan area, and the cost of the ticket. The bill would also condition antitrust exemptions on prohibiting sports blackouts during contract disputes between broadcasters and cable/satellite distributors, as well as condition antitrust exemptions on making home games available on the Internet when that game is unavailable on television.
These exemptions from federal antitrust law – as well as direct and indirect benefits through taxpayer-financed stadiums and public transportation infrastructure by federal and local governments – are intended to protect and promote professional sports and the role they play in society. 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.
The text of the legislation is here.
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