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Breaking down reaction to the FCC ending support of the blackout rule

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Despite the headlines that the FCC has voted to end support of the blackout rule, it doesn't mean that the NFL has to change anything. At least not until you threaten their money.

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

If you were reading the headlines, you're probably absolutely convinced that the government has just abolished the NFL blackout policy. Not quite. While the first step has been taken, the first die cast, the first bullet shot, the NFL is not required to do anything based on the FCC's unanimous decision -- they abolished support, not the actual practice. In fact, the FCC doesn't even expect the league to make any changes.

"The NFL has a right to enforce their current blackout rules and I suspect that they will continue to do so," said FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly said after Tuesday's vote.

God forbid that the NFL doesn't do something positive after the incendiary environment that they've single-handedly created.

The league's blackout policy requires that all non-premium seats are sold 72 hours prior to kickoff. If the game isn't sold out by then, it will be blacked out on local television. Cincinnati instituted an 85 percent threshold rule, lowering their count by nearly 8,000 tickets. Based on the team's usual panicked campaigns so far this year, the team has narrowly succeeded in lifting the blackout for both home games. There are some, however, who claim the Bengals are actually in a better position than what they are leading on, attempting to sell the remaining tickets that aren't required to lift the blackout.

The policy dates back to the 1950s when owners were fearful that people would watch the game for free on television (even if the game was sold out). A law was passed in 1973 in which games that failed to sell out were blacked out only in those local markets. In 1975, the FCC, already supporting the league's blackout policy, barred cable television from airing blacked out games to those local markets. Only two games were blacked out in 2013. In 2011, there were 16 but all coming from four cities: Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa Bay or San Diego.

The NFL has argued that repealing the blackout rule will prevent games from being seen on over-the-air broadcasts, such as Fox and CBS and placed on cable television where fans have to pay for certain packages.

"By ensuring that televising games will not reduce live attendance, the sports blackout rule encourages sports leagues to reach deals with broadcast networks," the N.F.L. wrote in its pleadings to the commission. If cable and satellite carriers were able to get around the league’s blackout policy, the league said, "the eventual result likely would be a decrease in the amount of professional sports on broadcast television."

This is an argument that Mike Florio with Pro Football Talk calls hollow.

Apart from the inevitable attack on the broadcast antitrust exemption that would result if games leave free TV, the NFL needs free TV; nothing else would allow the NFL to generate massive live TV audiences. Last week, the NFL renewed a deal with Sky Sports that ensures an enhanced presence of the game on free TV in England, since the NFL realizes that free TV means that more people will watch the games — and in turn that more people will become fans of the sport.

The league did offer a response to the FCC ruling on Tuesday afternoon.

"NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts. The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of the its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC's decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future."

The real power in Tuesday's decision lies in the league's antitrust exemption... something that congress will be addressing in due time via a bill that was introduced in 2013.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) are sponsoring a bill called the FANS Act, which would remove the league’s antitrust exemption if it allows blackouts during disputes between its broadcast and cable partners. Under the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, NFL teams are permitted to jointly negotiate broadcasting rights without violating antitrust law.

Now you're harassing the league's money cow. When that happens, that's when chance will come.