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. From 1975 to 2014, the FCC had sports blackout rules, but those rules were very limited and rarely involved in the sports blackouts you may have experienced.
Sports blackouts rules repealed
The FCC repealed its sports blackout rules, which prohibited cable and satellite operators from airing any sports event that was blacked out on a local broadcast station.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.
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.
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.
Sports Blackouts (pdf)