Orchard Park, NY (WIVB) - Could Bills' blackouts soon become a thing of the past?
The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it is considering ending a 40-year-old rule that became the basis for "blackouts" of professional sports on local TV.
Since the FCC first adopted the rule in the 1960s, the National Football League has used that rule as a model for its own blackout policy. When games do not sell out, they are not televised on local affiliates in the city where the game is played.
That has often resulted in Buffalo Bills fans who aren't at the "Ralph" not being able to watch the team in action.
"I think it's good for people that can't get to the games, whether it be health [or] money reasons," says Frank Fernandez of Lockport, a Bills' season ticket-holder. "There's no reason there should be a blackout.
"I can't make it to every single game, and I'm still a huge fan. The people who come every week aren't the only ones supporting the team," adds Jon Neubauer, also from Lockport. "I buy the hats, I buy the jerseys... I would like to be about to watch the game from home."
Congressman Brian Higgins has been lobbying the FCC to drop the blackout rule for the past several years, working in conjunction with the Buffalo Fan Alliance and its president, Matt Sabuda.
Higgins, and the fan advocacy group, consider the blackout policy outdated and unfair to fans.
"The blackout rule is obsolete. It doesn't make any sense... I think practicality is driving this," says Higgins. "The economic model of the NFL and professional sports, generally, has changed a lot. Now teams place a great emphasis on advertising revenues, a great emphasis on team paraphernalia, and it doesn't make any sense for a team to deny access to their brand to the consumers that support them."
If the FCC changes the rule, it would pave the way for all professional sporting events to be televised, regardless of attendance.
Ending blackouts also makes good economic sense to the owners and proprietors of local restaurants and sports bars, favorite places for fans to gather and watch the games.
"It affects our business, when it's not aired," explains Paula O'Brien Piraino, who with her husband owns a restaurant in Long Lake, in New York's Adirondack region. "We are in a very rural area, and we are tourist-based. And in the shoulder months, football helps get us through the wintertime. When people can't watch the game, it affects us, hugely."
Erroll Treslan has been a Bills' season ticket-holder for 10 years. He lives in Owen Sound, Ontario and tries to drive down for as many home games a year as possible.
"I hate it when they black out the games. I've got three kids, so I can't make it down to every game," Treslan says. "It really reduces my interest in the team, when the team that I have season tickets for... I can't see the game when I'm at home."
"Very few Canadians make it down to every game, but we want to see the Bills when we're at home," Treslan says.
Even if the FCC does do away with the rule, that won't automatically end Bills blackouts.
Many professional sports leagues, including the NFL, as well as cable and satellite providers have their own blackout policies. Although the NFL's policy is based on the FCC's rules, the league would still need to make changes of its own.
"I'd like to see the Bills at least do a test for one year. Take off the blackouts, and watch what it does for your season ticket sales and the sales for the game. Because I guarantee, Ralph Wilson, you won't lose money if you eliminate the blackout!" Treslan says. "I know it's not his decision, but I would encourage them to do that, because we'd love to see all the games.
Any official change in the rule is likely months away. The FCC is required to hold a public comment period before it makes a final decision.
"This is the beginning of a process. This is not the end, but I think it's the beginning of the end," says Higgins.
A spokesman for the NFL was quoted Saturday as saying the league "will review the FCC's proposal."
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