The NFL blackout rule is largely symbolic these days – just two games were kept off local airwaves due to the lack of a sellout during the 2013 season.
It’s a controversial measure, however, because taxpayers regularly dole out hundreds of millions in direct and indirect support to construct NFL stadiums that are owned and operated by the teams. You could argue, and the lobbying group Sports Fan Coalition did, that even the guy in his living room is a paying customer these days.
It apparently worked. On Tuesday, the FCC, at last, eliminated the old blackout rule.
While the FCC declared it a “victory for sports fans,” don’t celebrate too much. The league can still negotiate a private deal with its broadcast partners to keep non-sellouts off the air and the government probably wouldn’t interfere with that (although it could).
Still, this remains a historic moment if only because the government protection of blackouts has been under attack for more than six decades.
Perhaps never more so than on the eve of the 1972 playoffs, when a passionate and desperate football fan also happened to be the 37th President of the United States of America.
The week before Christmas that year, Richard Nixon was concerned because Washington was set to host Green Bay in a highly anticipated playoff game. Due to the NFL’s then-federally protected blackout rule, the game was not going to be shown on local television however. This despite the fact Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (named after a man who was coincidentally assassinated while running for president in an election Nixon would win) was sold out.
Back then, the NFL was able to black out all home games in local markets even if they were sold out. This even included sold-out playoff games.
The league argued this was a way to protect the ticket buyer, for whom it wouldn’t be fair if a fan back home that didn’t pay for the right to watch the game got to see it for free on TV. They claimed this was in the "public interest."
In 1953 President Eisenhower had his Justice Department sue the league over this but a federal judge ruled in the NFL’s favor. By 1961, the league’s vaunted lobbying efforts resulted in the protection being written into the Sports Broadcasting Act.
Nixon was having none of it, though. A local blackout of the Washington game also applied to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (although here’s guessing he could’ve gotten to see the game via the Pentagon, CIA, FBI or some other way).
On Dec. 19, 1972, Nixon placed a phone call from the Oval Office to his Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst. The call was recorded and uncovered in 2012 by the Associated Press on presidential tapes that sit in the National Archives.
On the tape, Nixon spends plenty of time venting about how outrageous the blackout rule is.
"The folks should be able to see the goddamn games on television," Nixon said. "Playoff games. Playoffs, all playoff games should be available."
He later notes that this would be a great victory for the common man, and thus politically for his administration.
"If we can get the playoff games [on TV], believe me, it would be the greatest achievement we've ever done," said a president who also opened U.S. diplomatic relations with China and oversaw man landing on the moon.
As such, Nixon tells the AG to offer then NFL-commissioner Pete Rozell a deal: put the sold-out playoff games on local television and he’d make sure the NFL would get presidential protection on all other issues.
"If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any – any – legislation to stop anything else," Nixon instructed Kleindienst to tell Rozelle. "I will fight it personally and veto any – any – legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we'll sustain the veto. … Go all out on it and tell him he's got the President's personal commitment."
What Nixon thought was a magnanimous offer, Rozell saw differently. He rejected it immediately. That’s how much the NFL coveted its blackout rule; they told a begging president to go pound sand.
"Pete Rozelle won almost every battle he had with Congress and the White House," said veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, author of "Rozelle: A Biography," which details the old commissioner’s life, career and impact on the league. "He was going to write the deal how he saw it even if that meant standing up to the President."
The immediate result was the only people in Washington who saw the home team win 16-3 were inside RFK.
In the short term, this was a mistake by Rozell. Nixon was none too pleased, and by 1973 the Sports Broadcasting Act was amended against stiff NFL opposition. Teams now could only black out games (regular season or playoff) if they weren’t sold out within 72 hours of kickoff. Originally all Nixon wanted was playoff games.
In the long run, though, the NFL discovered televising its games was a boon, and making the local action available led to a surge in popularity that continues unabated to this day. Studies show television revenue now accounts for over 60 percent of team revenue compared to just 20 percent from gate, concession and other game-day earnings.
Even with the games on TV, attendance and ticket prices soared, and teams were able to demand sweetheart public financing deals for stadiums that generated more and more profit via luxury boxes, club levels and personal seat licenses.
Still, the NFL has fought relentlessly through the years to maintain its blackout protection, even as its argument became less and less popular.
If anything, the decision by the FCC to finally strip it – essentially do what Eisenhower, Nixon and scores of others couldn’t – could be the start of Washington taking a more adversarial stance against the league as it’s grown immensely profitable while getting swamped in high-profile scandals ranging from brain injuries to domestic violence.
Time will tell on that. The league remains extremely active in lobbying governments at all levels. Individually its 32 ownership groups feature powerful private citizens and major local and national business interests. They’ve got politicians boxed in every which way.
That’s part of what makes Tuesday a historic day. The NFL doesn’t lose often, and 61 years after beating Ike’s Justice Department in court, this one seemed like it would never slip away.
It did though and somewhere President Nixon can feel good that the government is no longer standing in the way of the folks being able to see all the goddamn games on television.
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