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Sports Blackouts

The Federal Communications Commission repealed its sports blackout rules, which prohibited cable and satellite operators from airing any sports event that was blacked out on a local broadcast station. This action removes Commission protection of the private blackout policies of sports leagues, which require local broadcast stations to black out a game if a team does not sell a certain percentage of tickets by a certain time prior to the game. Elimination of this rule, however, may not end all sports blackouts: sports leagues may choose to continue their private blackout policies through contractual arrangements with programming distributors. For more information read the news release.

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.

Sports Blackouts are Privately Negotiated

All blackouts of sports events today 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.

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, as well as register your viewing preferences with the channel or system which they can consider when renewing any future distribution agreements with sports leagues. You also can contact the relevant sports team.

For More Information

For information about other communications issues, visit the FCC’s Consumer website, 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; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

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Sports Blackouts (pdf)

Updated: October 1, 2014
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