A "sports blackout" occurs when a sports event that was scheduled to be televised is not aired in a particular media market. A blackout may prevent transmission of sports programming on local broadcast networks and/or non-broadcast platforms such as cable and satellite television. Since 1975, the FCC has had sports blackout rules, but those rules are very limited and rarely involved in the sports blackouts you may have experienced.
Sports Blackouts are Privately Negotiated
In almost all circumstances, the blackouts of sports events are the result of contractual agreements between the content owners (i.e., the sports leagues or teams) and the programming distributors (i.e., the broadcast television networks and stations, and the cable and satellite networks and systems). Each sports league has different rules about when a televised event is blacked out, and those rules are part of the contracts the league or team signs with programming distributors.
In the case of NFL football games, a blackout occurs when a team does not sell a certain percentage of its tickets (between 85 and 100 percent, as determined by the team at the start of the season) within 72 hours prior to the game.
In other sports, blackouts generally occur as a result of the way in which the sports league has defined a particular team's "home territory." For example, if you live within a particular team's "home territory" but your cable or satellite system does not carry the local television station or regional sports network that holds exclusive distribution rights to that team's games, you will be unable to view the team's games, even if you subscribe to an "out-of-market" sports package, such as MLB Extra Innings or NHL Center Ice.
Blackouts may also occur where two different networks have both been granted distribution rights to the same game; in these cases, one network (typically, the "local" network) will have exclusive distribution rights to the game in the home team's market and the other network must black out the game in that market.
The Limits of the FCC's Sports Blackout Rules
The FCC's rules regarding blackouts prevent cable and satellite systems from airing a sports event in a local market when the event is blacked out on the local broadcast television station in that market.
In the vast majority of cases, the FCC's blackout rules have not played a role in sports blackouts you may have experienced. Furthermore, the FCC is not authorized to review or approve contractual agreements between sports leagues and television programming distributors.
The Commission is currently considering whether to repeal the sports blackout rules. More information concerning this proceeding can be found in MB Docket No. 12-3 at apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/proceeding/view?z=1c2yl&name=12-3.
What You Can Do if a Sports Event Is Blacked Out
If a sports event is blacked out on a particular broadcast or non-broadcast channel, you may want to contact the broadcast channel or non-broadcast system to determine why the decision to black out the event was made. You also can register your viewing preferences with the broadcast channel or non-broadcast system, which they can consider when renewing any future distribution agreements with sports leagues. You can also contact the relevant sports team.
For More Information
For information about other communications issues, visit the FCC's consumer website at www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/consumer-publications-library, or contact the FCC's Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554
Sports Blackouts (pdf)Updated: September 11, 2014