A “sports blackout” is when a sports event that was scheduled to be televised is not aired in a particular media market. This 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) and the programming distributors (i.e., the broadcast networks and stations, and the cable and satellite television channels and systems.) Each sports league has different rules about when a televised event is blacked out, and those rules are part of the contracts they sign with television distributors. In most cases, the blackout results when a sports league prohibits an event from being televised locally if the event did not sell out all its tickets. Some games also may be “preempted,” often because one game is “local” and a second game is not, or because two networks (broadcast and/or non-broadcast) both scheduled the televising of the same game in the same market.
The Limits of the FCC’s Sports Blackout Rules
The FCC’s rules regarding blackouts prevent cable and satellite networks from providing sports events to which a local broadcast station has exclusive broadcasting rights provided by the sports league. These rules only apply to:
- Sports programming that originates on broadcast television (programming that originates on cable or satellite channels or systems is not affected); and
- Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers, and satellite television systems with 1,000 or more subscribers within a certain zip code.
In the vast majority of cases, the FCC’s blackout rules did not play 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.
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 , 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)