Though the act also applies to professional baseball, hockey, and basketball teams, its significance to the NFL came to outweigh the benefits to other leagues, because pro football—with many fewer games per season—exclusively and collectively sells all its TV rights through monopoly pooling, then distributes the revenues to teams equally. Without this exemption, each team would have to negotiate its television contracts individually, which would be fine for powerful teams like the Dallas Cowboys that could probably arrange to have all their games broadcast nationally, but less advantageous for weak teams such as the Cleveland Browns, which might struggle even for local coverage.
As the league has grown more prosperous and powerful, it has used privileges encoded in the act—including the right to “black out” games in local areas—in ways that have angered fans and legislators, and provoked calls to amend or revoke the legislation. In 1987, Senator Arlen Specter asked the Justice Department to investigate the NFL’s new rights deal with ESPN—the first contract covering the transmission of games through cable—to determine if it violated terms of the Sports Broadcasting Act. Specter argued that the law’s language gave the NFL the right to cut television deals only on games broadcast over the air, not on cable. “The league is what it is today because it came to Congress in 1961 and requested an antitrust exemption,” a spokesman for Specter told the press. “Specter is concerned because the league has repeatedly said that cable wasn’t in its future.”
The NFL dodged that crisis when the Justice Department declined to pursue action against the league, but more questions ensued when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995, prompting Ohio congressman Martin Hoke to propose repealing the Sports Broadcasting Act and “letting the chips fall where they may.” The NFL mollified the critics by pledging to put another team in Cleveland.