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:
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.