Sports fans in Portland without Comcast may have had it tough for the last few seasons, but sports fans in Philadelphia have had to endure more than 10 years of Comcast flexing its muscles in the local market. Not only does Comcast own Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, a regional sports network that carries three of the four major teams in town, it also owns two of those teams - the Flyers and the 76ers.
This means that Philly fans can't watch their local teams on DirecTV or DISH Network. Unless they can afford to pay for both Comcast and DirecTV, sports fans in Philadelphia who want to watch DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket so they can see all the NFL games must sacrifice watching Philly teams. As a result, satellite TV providers reportedly only have an estimated 16% share of the Philadelphia market, half of what they have in other markets.
Meanwhile, sports fans in New York have had to endure not just James Dolan's mismanagement of their beloved Knicks franchise, they've also been victims of his strong-arm tactics as President and CEO of Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, Inc. Dolan and Cablevision have withheld MSG Sports programming in HD from New York fans who want to use some other carriers, including Verizon and DISH. And any true sports fan can tell you it's infuriating to watch a sports game without HD.
Comcast and Cablevision have been exploiting a loophole in the law to prevent its competitors from carrying their respective regional sports networks. Here's how the AP explains the "terrestrial loophole:"
While content owners generally cannot stop competitors from getting access to its channels, there has been an exception since 1992. If the channel's signals travel through a land-based network instead of satellite, the owner of that channel doesn't have to give every rival access. The purpose of the exception was to encourage development of local programming.
Comcast and Cablevision Systems Corp. have counted on that loophole to block access to some of their sports channels by their satellite TV and phone company rivals.
But in January of this year, the FCC closed the loophole (and in March a federal appeals court upheld the decision). Here's what FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time:
The loophole gives free reign to cable-TV operators to lock up local sports events and other popular programming and withhold them from rival providers ... Consumers who want to switch video providers shouldn't have to give up their favorite team in the process. Today the commission levels the competitive playing field.
To most observers, the FCC's ruling meant that Comcast now has to offer CSN Philadelphia to its competitors and Cablevision has to offer MSG in HD. Not that that's happening anytime soon. Both have refused to follow the FCC's ruling.
DISH Network wrote to Comcast in June requesting to carry CSN Philly and received what it said was an outright refusal from Comcast two days later. DISH subsequently announced plans to file a complaint with the FCC.
Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said in a statement:
The FCC's recent Terrestrial Order does not require Comcast to offer Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia or any other terrestrially delivered network to every distributor. It only allows claims where the provider has suffered a competitive injury, and there is no evidence Dish has suffered such an injury.
Comcast says it will give the rights to CSN Philadelphia if DISH and DirecTV give up the rights to their exclusive content, namely DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket. But there's quite a difference between not allowing other carriers to show in-market games and withholding out-of-market games.
So for the time being, sports fans will continue to have to choose between watching their teams and satellite service, a choice that, as Genachowski emphasized, no sports fan should have to make.
If the situations in Philadelphia, New York and Portland don't make sports fans wary of the pending Comcast-NBCU merger, they should. Comcast has used its control over two regional sports networks to withhold sports programming from competitors, thus treading all over consumers. Imagine what it could do with a national broadcast network.
Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. His favorite teams are the Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tar Heels, and whichever team his brother is coaching for. And the underdog. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org