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Senators tackle NFL’s blackout rule

The National Football League’s (NFL) controversial ‘blackout’ policy has come under further pressure after senators from both US political parties warned the American football competition to end the rule or risk congressional action to restrict its lucrative antitrust exemption, which allows teams to negotiate television broadcast rights together.

In September, the Federal Communications Commission voted to eliminate the blackout rule that blocks certain sports events from being shown live on television in their local market if they fail to meet a specified level of ticket sales. The NFL is still able to black out a game on television, but due to the FCC vote, a pay-television provider can show a blacked-out game in a market where the broadcast version is blocked.

Lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday said the blackout rule has long outlived its usefulness. The rule was adopted in the 1970s to encourage ticket sales at NFL games, which now routinely sell out at stadiums across the US.

“The simple fact is that these rules only serve to benefit sports leagues and their member teams at the expense of the hardworking fans who support them so loyally through their money, time and passion,” Republican Senator John McCain said, according to the Associated Press news agency.

A bill co-sponsored by McCain and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal would revoke the league's antitrust exemption unless it removes the blackout rule.

However, Gerard Waldron, a lawyer who represents the NFL, said the proposed bill would harm fans by undermining “the complex business and legal structure that allows the NFL to be the only professional sports league that offers all of its regular-season game to viewers at no charge” through over-the-air broadcasts.

Waldron said without the certainty of paid attendance provided by a blackout rule, NFL games are likely to shift to pay-television platforms. He added that no NFL games have been blacked out this season and only two games were blacked out in 2013.