Thursday, December 07, 2006


Don't Hate The Game...Hate The League

I've neglected Gregg Easterbrook's cool Tuesday Morning Quarterback column this season. However, after remembering it this week, I found this point pretty compelling:

The wonderful NFL Sunday Ticket, restricted via NFL cartel arrangement to customers of DirecTV in the United States, is available to any cable customer in Canada, as noted by many frostback readers, including Kevin Heselton of Regina, Saskatchewan. This means Canadians get better access to NFL games, played in stadia funded by American taxpayers, than American taxpayers do. Is there somehow some need for the NFL to forbid all but DirecTV customers from choosing any game -- does this somehow advance the NFL business model? No, because as
many international readers including Alex McLeish of Beaconsfield, United Kingdom, have reported, anyone who lives outside the United States can now watch any NFL game live by signing up for a Yahoo! streaming video service. Live outside the United States? The NFL is happy to let you watch whatever game you please. Are you an American whose taxes paid for the NFL's stadiums? Sorry, you are shafted.

In 1961, the pre-merger National Football League received an antitrust exemption from Congress, partly in return for its promise that all game broadcasts would be available equally to all Americans. For a decade, the most desirable broadcast service the NFL offers, Sunday Ticket, has been denied to the majority of Americans who don't or can't get DirecTV, in seeming defiance of the league's promise to Congress. Last year the NFL signed a contract that extends the cartel till 2011, and the reason was simple, DirecTV paid a lavish fee. But DirecTV shouldn't be able to buy something that violates at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the NFL's 1961 promise to Congress. As the new Congress takes its seat, the Senate Judiciary Committee has announced it will investigate NFL dealings with DirecTV. Sure the NFL and DirecTV signed a contract, but it's one that violates a public trust -- and Commissioner Roger
Goodell, it will go better for you and the sport if you amend the Sunday Ticket
deal on your own terms, rather than waiting for Congress to alter it for you.
Unless, of course, you'd rather surrender the NFL's antitrust exemption.
The entire section on TV access is well worth the read. Easterbrook is, I believe, wrong in one important area (and Ed can correct me if I'm incorrect): The NFL no longer has an antitrust exemption; indeed major league baseball is the only major sport that has such an exemption. Recall that the USFL technically won its lawsuit with the NFL on antitrust grounds (that's why the upstart league was awarded treble damages -- amounting to three dollars).

Easterbrook's broader point though remains true: So many NFL stadiums are built with taxpayer money -- yet a private entity gets to buy exclusive rights to broad distribution of all games. Hmmm....

Another point that Easterbrook doesn't examine is the huge economic boost that Sunday Ticket has provided the hospitality industry: Satellite distribution of NFL games have turned sports bars into a secular polytheirstic church-going experience for many Americans on Sunday: The games are the preachers; the fans are the congregation; the bartenders are the acolytes: Everyone gathers there to "worship" their preferred deity. Would this communal experience continue if the NFL "released" rights to all games to platforms other than DirecTV?

UPDATE: I'm wrong! The NFL does have a limited antitrust exemption -- which may come under scrutiny in the next Congress:
A law that allows the National Football League to sign lucrative television contracts on behalf of all 32 teams should be repealed, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said at a Senate hearing Thursday.

Specter said he would introduce a bill in the new Congress that would repeal the NFL’s antitrust exemption under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.

He claimed that he wasn’t afraid to tackle the commercially and politically powerful NFL. “I think I’ll have a lot of company, and that is the football fans of America, who are being gouged,” he added after chairing a hearing on sports-programming issues.

NFL director of communications Brian McCarthy said the status quo was sufficient because the league’s “television practices have been recognized as consistent with the public interest” in that they provide “fans extraordinary amounts of programming” either free-of-charge or at little out-of-pocket expense.

“There is no basis now to repeal statutory provisions that have supported the development of these pro-consumer and pro-fan policies,” he added.

With Democrats taking control of the Senate in January, Specter will have to yield his committee chairmanship to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Although Leahy has not taken a stand on the NFL issue, he helped to pass legislation that narrowed Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Leahy spokesman David Carle said.

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