The NFL vs. Comcast, the Next Round

by Rick Rockwell

Football season in the U.S. may be over until the teams gather again in July, but the justice system finally plods ahead for fans of pro football in the offseason.

A New York State Appeals Court ruled this week that Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, and the National Football League should resolve at least some of their differences through a trial.

At least the judiciary in New York is moving forward because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress have been dragging their feet for more than two years when it comes to the issue of the league’s cable channel, the NFL Network.

This blog has been following the issue almost from its inception and frankly like many football fans the whole mess makes us tired and disgusted.

For those who haven’t bothered to keep up with this, the larger dispute almost derailed having fans watch the regular season match-up between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. That game was not only stupendous but provided a warm-up for a great Super Bowl. That regular season finale was the most watched regular season game in many years. And during the 2006 season this problem of access to the NFL Network not only caused controversy among fans who couldn’t watch great NFL match-ups, but it almost kept college fans (especially fans of Rutgers) from seeing various bowl games. To resolve these issues, usually the league has offered these games at no cost to both cable and broadcast networks or cut deals that allowed generous sharing of advertising revenue among the league and the broadcasters.

The issue in New York goes to the core of the problem. Comcast puts the NFL Network on a special expensive sports tier. The cable firm says it needs to do this to offset costs because the league charges more for its cable channel than most other channels. The league counters that putting its channel on an expensive sports tiers is unnecessary because the cable firms can more than recoup costs from consumers using less exclusive (and less expensive) tiers.

Fans don’t really want to wade into the complex economic and contractual issues. They just want to be able to see their games without a whole lot of complexity and without paying what many consider to be exorbitant costs. Fans wouldn’t have to pay those exorbitant costs if they switched from cable television to satellite. But when the NFL got involved in promoting that option with its satellite TV partners, Comcast sued.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) has threatened in the past to bring the NFL’s anti-trust exemption before the Senate Judiciary Committee if the league wouldn’t work harder at resolving the dispute with cable. Specter has been rather quiet about that lately, although he has made noise about pursuing how the league handled the scandal involving the Patriots and their video spying operation. Of course, Specter seems to have a burr in his saddle for the NFL because Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, is one of his powerful constituents.

So let the courts work this mess out. That solution is long overdue. Perhaps the courts in New York can settle this, set a precedent and fans can have their NFL Network without any pains next fall.

But not likely.

Expect this to be tied up in court and in appeals for years to come. There’s more teeth grinding ahead for fans come fall 2008.

(Photo by C.P. Storm via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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