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It's Time for the FCC to Step Up for Sports Fans

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"Consumers who want to switch video providers shouldn't have to give up their favorite team in the process." - FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

Since Sports Fans Coalition was founded in 2009, one of our primary concerns has been access to games. Sports fans -- one of the largest (if not the largest) consumer groups in the U.S. -- are often priced out of watching games either in person or on television. What makes this all the more galling is that sports leagues and owners have extracted so much money from our communities already in the form of public subsidies, primarily for stadium construction, and antitrust exemptions that enable them to maintain a stranglehold on the marketplace.

When it comes to watching games on television, which is how most fans experience sports, fans are often faced with a similar dilemma -- pay through the teeth for one TV provider so that they can see their favorite teams' games or switch to another provider and lose access to those games. This is because the one TV provider owns the regional sports network (RSN) that shows the games and the provider refuses to sell the RSN to another provider in order to gain leverage in the market for subscribers.

For instance, for more than a decade in Philadelphia, Comcast has dominated the market for cable and satellite customers because it owns Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, a regional sports network that carries three of the four major teams in town -- and because it actually owns two of those teams (the Flyers and the 76ers). As a result, fans can't watch their favorite teams on DirecTV or DISH. Thus, satellite TV providers reportedly only have an estimated 16% share in the Philadelphia market, half of what they have in other markets.

Similarly, New York Knicks and Rangers fans in the New York City area have to subscribe to Cablevision if they wish to see games on MSG HD and San Diego Padres fans have to subscribe to Cox to see games.

Comcast, Cablevision and Cox have been exploiting what's called the "terrestrial loophole," which the FCC closed a year and half ago. But these companies still refused to play ball and Cablevision took the FCC to court. On Friday, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC had the authority to close the loophole.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior VP and policy director for the public interest group Media Access Project, predicted that the court decision will lead to "more choice and, perhaps, lower prices, for pay-TV services."

Back when the FCC closed the loophole, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said:

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.

Ultimately, that's what Sports Fans Coalition is fighting for -- fans should have greater access to games, whether in person or on television, and that access should be affordable for the average fan.

By the way, this isn't to say satellite providers are without blame for leaving fans in the dark. For the past four seasons, Trail Blazer fans in Oregon without Comcast have been unable to see Blazer home games on CSN Northwest. Since the Trail Blazers are pretty much the only game in town (and since Blazer fans are arguably the most passionate in the game), Blazer fans have had to either pay Comcast or miss out on their beloved team.

When the FCC approved the Comcast-NBCU merger, it specifically ordered creation of "an improved commercial arbitration process" for licensing Comcast programming, including "cable channels in addition to broadcast and regional sports network programming." It seemed that there was hope for satellite providers hoping to access Comcast sports programming. Problem is, DirecTV and DISH have failed to fight for Blazer fans by forcing a resolution via arbitration. It's time for these satellite companies to put up or shut up.

But, in the case of Philadelphia, New York and San Diego, other providers clearly want access to the sports programming and sports fans in those cities want -- and deserve -- to be able to choose how they get their favorite games.

The FCC has leveled the playing field and the Courts have upheld their authority. Now it's time for the FCC to actually enforce its own ruling and ensure that sports fans have greater choice in how they see their favorite teams. Just as in sports, fair competition should be paramount.

Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. Email him at brian@sportsfans.org.

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