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WASHINGTON (AP) — For years, football fans have bemoaned the rule barring NFL home games that haven't sold out from being televised in the local market.
Well, you can't blame the government anymore.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to end the 1975 rule with a push from its chairman.
"We at the FCC shouldn't be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV," said Chairman Tom Wheeler. "It's time to sack the sports blackout rule."
The vote won't actually end blackouts, which are written into the NFL's private contracts with broadcast and cable companies. But it means responsibility for blackouts now lies entirely with the NFL and its television partners, not the government.
Last year, only two NFL games were blacked out in local markets: The Bengals against the Chargers in San Diego on Dec. 1 and the Dolphins vs. the Bills in Buffalo on Dec. 22.
Even so, the NFL launched a lobbying campaign against the blackout repeal.
The rule has barred cable-TV stations from televising games in metro areas where those games were being blacked out on local TV. The league warned that without this rule in place, it would move more games to pay cable and away from free over-the-air broadcasts on local television stations. It hired Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann, who starred for the Pittsburgh Steelers, to conduct a grassroots campaign to "protect football on free TV."
The FCC commissioners were unmoved. They noted that the NFL makes plenty of money selling old-fashioned broadcast rights.
What's more, the NFL's TV contracts don't expire until 2022, so it couldn't do anything for eight years. In the meantime, Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league executives have extolled the benefits of airing games on free TV. This year, they moved some Thursday night games to CBS from the cable channel NFL Network.
The blackout rule is a vestige of a bygone era, when the NFL was hardly today's wildly popular money-making machine. When the rule passed nearly four decades ago, just 40 percent of NFL games sold out, and teams relied on ticket sales for most of their revenue.
In the mid-1990s, roughly two-thirds of NFL games typically sold out. A decade ago, the figure approached 90 percent. Now, it's 99 percent.
Yet in any case, NFL teams get most of their revenue from television.
The blackouts, rare as they are now, have been especially bitter for Bills fans. Perhaps their greatest victory in franchise history — a 41-38 comeback win over the Houston Oilers in a 1993 playoff game — was blacked out on local television because Buffalo's Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) didn't sell out for the game.
In fact, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Buffalo native, chose to announce his vote against the blackout rule last month at Buffalo's Anchor Bar, which claims to have created that beloved game day snack-food staple, the Buffalo wing.
"Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners," Pai said.
AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen in New York contributed to this report.
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