New lobbying group targets old battle over TV sports coverage

A new advocacy group launching Friday wants to give sports fans a louder voice in Washington on issues such as game blackouts, high event ticket prices and the lack of a college football playoff.

But a closer look at supporters of the Sports Fans Coalition suggests the group has its sights set on another highly contentious issue between cable and satellite providers: exclusive rights to carry regional sports games.

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Verizon is the coalition’s sole corporate sponsor. The advisory board includes Public Knowledge; the Media Access Project; and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, all of which have spoken out against a “loophole” that allows cable operators to maintain exclusivity on certain content in particular cities.

In fact, Verizon brought these concerns before Congress last week. Verizon, which offers FiOS video service, has banded together with AT&T, which also provides video service through its U-Verse product, to fight Cablevision, the biggest cable provider in New York City.
Cablevision owns Madison Square Garden and airs coverage of sports leagues and concerts from the venue. Verizon has been denied high-definition broadcasts from Madison Square Garden, and Cablevision says its rights to the high-def programming are protected under an exemption to 1992 Cable Act rules.

Satellite providers DirecTV and EchoStar have similar problems accessing Phillies games in Philadelphia, where Comcast offers regional sports coverage. AT&T was also denied access to Southern California sports programming and filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Cox Communications, which has its own relationship with the states’ professional sports franchises.

The leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee did not say last week whether they would seek legislation to address the complaints.

“We believe you should be able to watch your local sports teams play no matter what service you subscribe to,” said David Goodfriend, a former lobbyist for DISH network, a satellite operator owned by EchoStar. He still does some lobbying work for the company, but said he could not convince executives to sign on to the coalition he helped form.

He said he got the idea for the group when a congressional staffer asked him if he knew of anyone who could testify on behalf of sports fans at a hearing. The corporate funding was needed to get the coalition off the ground, but he hopes it will be self-sustaining when sports fans join and decide the direction of the group.

“In general, we’re going to be a grassroots advocacy organization and advocate wherever and however we can,” including Congress, the White House, FCC and the Justice Department, he said.

Brad Blakeman, a senior White House adviser during the George W. Bush administration, is also on the group’s board of directors. His pet peeves include high ticket prices for sporting events at stadiums that were publicly financed.

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“Sports fans [are] being priced out of events,” he said. “When I see ticket prices at $400, and when I see concession prices so high that families can’t go and enjoy the game without spending hundreds of dollars, it’s unfair when their tax money has been spent building these beautiful stadiums.”

Goodfriend said the group will also try to prevent blackouts of televised games and will try to approach sports bars and restaurants that also have an interest in eliminating game blackouts, which happen when stadium seats don’t sell out by a certain point before a scheduled game.

“We’re in a recession right now, and people are being sued by sports teams for not paying up on their ticket packages,” he said. “At the same time, federal law is sustaining a blackout system that keeps people from watching their hometown teams.”