Sports access fans Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have re-introduced the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act, which would attempt to prevent broadcasters from blacking out games during retrans impasses by disincentivizing such moves.
The bill would require that sports leagues that want to retain their antitrust exemptions insure that their games don't get blacked out during retrans disputes with broadcasters or when stadiums don't sell out. The NFL scrapped its stadium blackout policy for this season, but the Senators want to make sure that policy continues. And there are other leagues in play, as it were.
The bill would do two things:
"[R]emove original language in the SBA [Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961] 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....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 on prohibiting sports blackouts during contract disputes between broadcasters and cable/satellite distributors."
The senators say that there is no evidence that blackouts drive ticket sales and that less-than-full stadiums have more to do with stadium size, population and ticket prices.
"Sports Fans Coalition thanks Senators Blumenthal and McCain for reintroducing the FANS Act and showing once again that they stand up for American sports fans and all the taxpayers around the country who help pay for new sports stadiums," said the Sports Fans Coalition. "The FANS Act gives professional sports leagues a choice: if you want federal law to continue protecting you from criminal and civil antitrust liability, then require your media partners to keep the games on TV during contract disputes between broadcasters and pay TV providers. If you don’t want to take on that obligation, you forfeit your antitrust exemption."
"Thank you, Senators Blumenthal and McCain, for standing up for fans and demanding that the fans who pay their taxes, support their teams, and fuel the multi-billion dollar sports industry get better access to the games," said Sports Fans Coalition board member Habiba Alcindor, daughter of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
McCain and Blumenthal have been hailed by the coalition for their ongoing support of access to sports broadcasts, as well as more recently the FCC, which voted in September 2014 to eliminate its sports blackout rules. Those rules were a government backstop to contractual provisions preventing cable operators and others from providing games to subs in markets where the local broadcast is blacked out.
The bill would provide an affirmative spur to leagues to write such blackouts out of their contracts.