Critics: Cable merger could sideline sports

A pending mega-merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable could affect some sports fans' ability to watch their favorite teams, critics are saying.

Opponents of the proposed $45 billion deal are warning it could lead Comcast to squeeze out competition and force leagues to show games exclusively to the company's subscribers.

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"What [Comcast] can do is it can favor its own content in a lot of ways on its own platform, and then it can also deny its own content to other platforms, meaning typically the satellite guys," said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press.

Comcast owns a handful of regional sports networks, as well as NBC and its slate of channels. That could give it an incentive to make sure games are shown only on its stations, not others, and give the company more leverage over teams when it comes to broadcasting rights.

That potential exists for a variety of types of programming, critics say, but would be especially egregious for sports, which are often supported by local tax dollars.

"Because sports are publicly subsidized, our belief is that everything should be viewed through the lens of what makes them more available," said David Goodfriend, the chairman of the National Sports Fan Coalition and former deputy staff secretary in President Clinton's White House.

It's also a lot more important to watch sports games live, so Comcast isn't likely to face any immediate competition from upstarts like Netflix or Amazon.

Lawmakers have expressed similar concerns. In a hearing this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Comcast would own 16 regional sports networks after the merger, which amounts to "a very formidable amount of local sports programming in the largest media markets in the country."

"I'm really concerned that the increased ownership of high value programming like regional sports networks will give your companies, soon to be one company, both the means and incentive to overcharge your rivals," he told cable company executives.

In response, Comcast Vice President David Cohen noted that Comcast and Time Warner Cable don't compete in any of the same markets. As a result, the regional networks would not be affected by the deal, he declared.

"We're not going to have any more power in the L.A. market to negotiate different deals because we also own regional sports [networks] in Chicago and Philadelphia and the Washington area," he said.

But media markets are different from regions, Goodfriend said, which means a the merged entity could find itself with more sway in certain areas of the country where fan bases are mixed.

"How do you define a region? It's not a specific market," he said. "It is, as the name suggests, a region. I would argue that the interest in sports for any given region is broader than the specific block-by-block, zip-code-by-zip-code layout of cable systems in a particular region."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also mentioned the potential impact of the deal on sports games, which advocates said should be comforting to regulators at the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission tasked with reviewing the merger.

"It's important, because if you're sitting at the Department of Justice or the FCC and you're wondering whether there's enough political will to support your efforts to explore these issues? Answer: yes," Goodfriend said. "Bipartisan committee-level political support for the exploration of these issues. Check. That's significant."

The cable deal has drawn increased scrutiny from public interest critics wary of the size of the new cable titan.

If approved, the acquisition would put Comcast in most major markets and let it control a little less than 30 percent of the cable TV market and an estimated 40 percent of the broadband video market in the country.