I was one of the more than 71,000 people fortunate enough to be in the Superdome to watch the New Orleans Saints advance to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. What struck me most about the game was not the noise level in the stadium, but the interactions between the fans. After every positive play, there was not just a deafening cheer, but also an enthusiastic high five with the people sitting near you. First down Saints: A high-five for my wife, one each for the six guys sitting in front of us, one for the young couple on my left and the older couple on my right, and one for the 10-year-old kid behind me. The scene played out over and over again all throughout the stadium. After a touchdown, the high-fives turned into hugs and the entire crowd sang and danced in unison. At the end of the game, while people celebrated deliriously, an older man walked up a few rows from his seat, looking for someone to hug, to share the moment with. He spotted the youngest person in the section--the 10 year-old boy sitting behind me--and they embraced, both crying tears of joy. He then gave me a hug and said, "I've been coming here since the 70s. I've waited a long time for this."
That's one of the great things about sports. It brings complete strangers together, whatever their differences. What else could give us the scene in the French Quarter after the game? It was a city-wide hug-fest (Mardi Gras in the French Quarter provides a slightly less family-friendly hug-fest), with everyone--from kids to cops--shouting the same "who dats." Super Bowl Sunday provides another opportunity to recapture that experience. According to reports (and personal experience), the Superdome has been inundated with requests to watch the Super Bowl in the stadium. But, the NFL, citing copyright law, will not allow it. We've all seen the disclaimer:
This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent is prohibited.
The NFL has been consistently zealous in protecting the copyright of its broadcasts. The league has prohibited any "mass out-of-home viewings" of their games, including games broadcast in movie theaters, schools, museums, hotels, and even churches (the NFL makes an exception for bars). In 2007, churches in Indianapolis and Chicago canceled Super Bowl parties after the NFL informed them that broadcasting the game in the church constituted a mass out-of-home viewing and violated the law (the NFL relented in 2008 and now allows churches to show games as long as the church does not charge admission). There's no real debate that the NFL has the right to prohibit these broadcasts. The NFL has a copyright in the broadcast of its games and this copyright allows the NFL to control the dissemination of these games (don't worry, the copyright laws do not prevent you from inviting friends over for a Super Bowl party at your house). There's also no question that the NFL has created a valuable product--so valuable that the networks are willing to pay billions of dollars for the rights to show those games--and that the league should be able to prevent unauthorized broadcasts that dilute the value of their televised games.
And, with the proliferation of new technology that allows viewers to watch games away from their televisions--on cell phones, laptops, and soon, iPads--the NFL is rightly concerned about finding ways to ensure that they maintain control--and benefit financially from--the rights to their broadcasts. The NFL cannot be blamed for shutting down pirated broadcasts of their games on the internet and taking all other steps to protect their product. But, is prohibiting fans of Super Bowl teams from watching the Super Bowl in their team's stadium a necessary step? As the NFL has explained in the past, it prohibits mass out-of-home broadcasts of games because fans watching games in public places (as opposed to on their home televisions) do not count for the Nielsen ratings, so more fans watching outside of their homes means lower ratings, which means lower revenue for the NFL through it television deals. But, the NFL has accounted for fans watching games on cell phones and laptops, so why not in stadiums? And, if the league can capture the value of the fans who choose to watch the games on non-traditional devices, why not capture the value of fans who choose to watch the game on a large television in a stadium?
The NFL doesn't have to worry about a slippery slope problem. They can limit this to the teams playing in the Super Bowl in a given year (or, for the sake of people in New Orleans this year, they can create a teams-whose-home-cities-have-been-ravaged-by-a-hurricane-and-flood-and-have-made-it-to-the-Super-Bowl-for-the-first-time-in-franchise-history-and-play-in-a-dome-are-allowed-to-show-the-Super-Bowl-in-their-dome exception). Allowing two stadiums worth of fans to watch the big game together outside of their homes will not destroy the value of the league's television deals. The number of fans who can fill two stadiums is a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of television viewers (and, after all, they will all be watching the game on television!). The league already makes an exception to allow fans to watch games in bars and churches, so why not two stadiums? It's not difficult to account for the number of fans who enter two stadiums, and it's certainly easier to account for them than it is to account for the fans who are watching the games in bars and churches across the country. And, unlike in bars and churches, the team can charge an admission fee (which can be shared by teams, or perhaps this year, can be donated for relief efforts in Haiti).
So, NFL, why not let 71,000-plus strangers come together and share what--for many fan-- could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience? At best, you make about 140,000 fans happy and add to the popularity of your already wildly popular sport. At worst, you lose about 140,000 fans from the television ratings. To put that in perspective, 151.6 million people watched the Super Bowl on television last year. Yes, we can all watch at home with friends, family, and co-workers, but we do that all the time. On this one night, why not let us experience this together, as a city?