Generally, I don’t think well of Congress butting in to the professional sports leagues — it usually results in a highly obnoxious and pathetic form of Kabuki in which all parties involved claim to be concerned about something “for the consumer” or “for the children” (please see the steroid hearings of two years ago and note this when Selig, Fehr, et al return to Congress post-Mitchell Report.) I find Sen. John Kerry’s threat to investigate the NFL if it did not make this Saturday’s Patriots-Giants NFL Network exclusive available on broadcast noxious, as if a football game was really such a primary concern to the elected officials who literally have matters of life and death that they would be better off addressing.
Yet I have very little sympathy for the league, which has now decided to simulcast Messrs. Gumbel and Collinsworth on both NBC and CBS Saturday night. The onus comes from threats from Sens. Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter (committee chair and ranking member respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee), who said they would look into the league’s anti-trust exemption if the game was kept solely on the NFL Network.
Like many things about the modern NFL, the exemption came during the reign of Pete Rozelle as commissioner, and the merger of the NFL and the AFL was dependent upon securing an anti-trust exemption for the new league — which the league has already violated the spirit of, seeing that Rozelle pledged in front of Congress that no existing team at the time would move out of its metropolitan market. Regardless, once you go pleading with the federal government for a competitive advantage of any sort, you now find yourself subject to its whims, and that is where Lord Rog and the owners find themselves in the middle of a stupid war with cable in which the NFL is completely in the wrong. Even in the press release, the NFL cannot get over itself and the supposed importance of its house organ:
“NFL Network is a programming service of great interest to fans and should be broadly distributed by the cable industry,” said NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein. “The only channel devoted 24/7 to America’s favorite sport is not programming that should be relegated to a poorly promoted, pay-extra sports tier that takes advantage of our fans’ passion for the NFL. A few of the biggest cable operators have refused to negotiate. We call on them to do what’s right for their consumers and negotiate agreements for NFL Network that make sense for everybody.”
Despite the dominance of football in the American sporting landscape, to demand placement on a basic cable tier for the amount of money that the league requests is audacity writ large. Most sports fans pay for a sports cable tier — I do; it’s the only way I get Fox Soccer and ESPN News — and would be more than happy to have the NFL Network on it for what we pay. What the NFL fails to realize is this: there are millions of non-sports fans in this country who don’t want to be saddled with higher basic cable bills for a channel they don’t care about. It’s why the issue of a la carte cable programming has gotten ink and air time in the past couple of years. Barring that, the NFL Network is a niche network, one catering to the super-dedicated sort of football fan who will watch related programming for a good chunk of the day, even during the off-season, when there are no games.
So, in the wake of this stalemate, the league has continued to restrict access to games via premium channels, and now, Goodell will have to reap what he and advocates like Pat Bowlen and Jerry Jones have been baiting for — a historical game that could drive up product demand and tip the scales winds up being negated for their pet channel via a simulcast.
You ask for favors, you have to give them back. And while I understand the complaint Paulsen at Sports Media Watch has with the entire concept of political pressure being used, let us not weep for a league that decided to allow the federal government a say in its operation when it asked for an exemption from the normal regulations on business in the U.S. Certain tax exemptions for the league and for its owners, approved by the voters to finance mega-stadiums on part or all of the public dole, come with unintended consequences. The league may figure this out if someone in Washington gets the bright idea to question NFL Sunday Ticket’s sole availability on DirecTV.