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NFL accused of coercing broadcasters into buying tickets to avoid blackouts

The battle over the future of NFL blackouts took an interesting turn this week, as an advocacy group attempting to rid the country of blackouts accused the league of pressuring networks carrying its games into buying up remaining tickets to avoid local blackouts.

The 49ers beat the Packers in this year's NFC Wild Card Playoff game, but Green Bay fans came close to not being able to watch it on local TV.
The 49ers beat the Packers in this year's NFC Wild Card Playoff game, but Green Bay fans came close to not being able to watch it on local TV.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Sports Fan Coalition chairman David Goodfriend says that an unnamed “high-ranking” sports executive told him that the NFL communicated to network officials that it expected said networks, or affected local affiliates, to buy up remaining tickets to games that weren’t sold out in order to avoid local blackouts.

Though not specifically mentioned, the presumption is that this accusation was concerning first-round playoff games. It was widely reported that three of the four contests, which took place on January 4th and 5th, were originally not sold out.

This includes the 49ers’ victory at the Packers. If true, this means the NFL told Fox to make sure its Green Bay station bought up all unsold tickets to avoid a local blackout. The NBC station in Indianapolis and Cincinnati’s CBS outlet would’ve also been in the same boat.

As it turns out, local companies like Kroger and Proctor and Gamble actually bought the remaining tickets, and all blackouts were avoided that weekend.

The Sports Fan Coalition is asking the FCC to investigate and wants the Department of Justice to look into the matter as well. It admits that there’s no FCC violation here but contends that if the league has to pressure the broadcasters it has contracts with to buy tickets, then there’s something wrong with its blackout policy.

As reported here last year, the NFL has made it clear that, with regard to recent moves to prevent sports blackouts, it will fight any attempt to restrict it from changing current blackout rules. Both the FCC and two senators are proposing legislation preventing sports leagues from blacking out games at the expense of fans. In the legislation offered by the senators, continuing to do so would eliminate their antitrust exemptions. The NFL has indicated it's willing to take that consequence over changing its long-time, and many would say antiquated, blackout rules.

The FCC has already tentatively voted 5-0 to get rid of its rules, but has not made it official and is waiting for comment. The Sports Fans Coalition, whose petition to lift the rules prompted the FCC vote, says that this case is a clear example of NFL blackout rules not being in the public interest.

The NFL has not commented on this accusation, but said at the time that if those contests had not sold out, they would not have been on TV in those three cities. We'll see if this latest development launches an FCC investigation and causes the Senate bill, known as the FANS Act, to be reinvigorated.

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