Why you can't show the NFL on Saturday.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 14 2004 4:28 PM

The (Other) NFL Blackout Rule

Why you didn't see the Dolphins-Titans game live.

The Miami Dolphins' season opener against the Tennessee Titans—a 17-7 loss for the Ricky Williams-less hosts—was moved from Sunday to Saturday, to ensure that Hurricane Ivan wouldn't interfere with the game. The game wasn't broadcast nationally, even to DirecTV customers who subscribe to the $219 NFL Sunday Ticket package. A league spokesman said that the NFL was merely trying to "operate within the spirit" of a 1961 federal law on sports broadcasting. What does that law say, exactly, and why did Congress see fit to meddle in televised pigskin?

The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 clearly states that professional football games cannot be telecast on the days traditionally reserved for high-school and college contests, at least for the lion's share of autumn. The law's language is specific in regards to when progams cannot be aired:

Advertisement

On any Friday after six o'clock postmeridian or on any Saturday during the period beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December in any year from any telecasting station located within seventy-five miles of game site of any intercollegiate or interscholastic football contest scheduled to be played on such a date.

The law's big qualifier is that the college or high-school games in question must have been announced in "a newspaper of general circulation" before Aug. 1.

This bit of athletic protectionism traces back to the days of the NFL's competition with the rival American Football League. Struggling to get the upper hand in the spring of 1961, the NFL took the then-unusual step of selling league-wide TV rights to CBS. But in July, a U.S. District Court ruled that the contract violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, since the deal prevented the individual teams from "determining the areas within which telecasts of games may be made."

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, an astute lobbyist, quickly mobilized to push Congress for an antitrust exemption, arguing that small-market teams like the Green Bay Packers could survive only if the league "pooled" its TV rights. Congress was mostly happy to capitulate, save for a number of representatives who worried that the budding NFL would diminish interest in college and high-school football. Rozelle was keen to have the legislation pushed through in time for the fall season, and so his congressional allies made the compromise regarding the Friday night and Saturday broadcast bans. The act became law less than three months after the court decision voiding the CBS pact.

Although the law was clearly Rozelle's handiwork, the antitrust exemption for broadcasting was also extended to professional baseball, basketball, and hockey. Yet none of those other sports was made subject to the sort of broadcast embargo that the NFL faces; that section of the act addresses only football.

Unfortunately for fans, the act has also been interpreted as supporting the NFL's right to enforce a "blackout policy," whereby the home team's games aren't shown locally. For over a decade after the act's passage, the home team's games weren't televised even if the stadium was sold out. But in 1973, Congress passed a law requiring that the blackout be lifted if the game was sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. Although that law sunsetted in 1975, the NFL has adhered to the 72-hour policy ever since.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.