Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do we have a right to free football?

Even though I love football, I sure hope not, but some Montanans think we do.

Tuesday was about two hours old when John Sterrett of Missoula finished creating a "public event" page - called "Petition to Have ESPN Have Feeds of FCS Playoff Games" - on Facebook.

He punched a button, and sent it out to his Facebook friends - all 400 or so of them.

Less than 36 hours later, the petition had spread across oceans, gathered more than 10,000 "signatures," and was in the hands - or at least available on computer screens - of more than 64,000 more Facebook users.

"It's kind of surprising," Sterrett, owner of A1 Glass Restoration, said Wednesday morning. "I knew there'd be a lot of interest, but I didn't expect this much ‘lot.' "

The number of signatures was closing in on 12,600 by 6 p.m. Wednesday - most from Grizzly and Bobcat football fans steamed that most of them won't be able to watch Montana and Montana State's Dec. 3 FCS playoff games on TV.

That's because ESPN owns the TV broadcast rights to both games, and - so far - will not allow local stations to show them.

They'll only be available on ESPN3, an online streaming service that most Montanans cannot access because their Internet providers do not pay ESPN the fees it demands to carry it.

With so much of Montana outraged, both Montana Senators jumped to action. By the account of most newspaper articles, they were successful:
Montana’s U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester today scored a touchdown for Montana football fans by securing a commitment from ESPN to allow broader TV distribution of the upcoming Bobcats and Grizzlies playoff games.

Both Senators last week asked ESPN to make the games more widely available to Montana viewers and fans. The cable sports network today responded by announcing it will make all 8 games of the December 3rd NCAA Division I Football Championship playoffs available on cable and satellite nationwide through ESPN GamePlan for a suggested retail price of $24.60 in addition to its previously announced carriage on ESPN3. Montanans can call their cable or satellite provider to access the playoff games.
I don't get this story (or the passion surrounding it) on many levels.
  1. First, much of the anger about this issue has been directed at ESPN -- the non-Montanan evil corporation that bought and owns the broadcasting rights to the FCS playoffs. Why is the anger not directed at the internet companies that are unwilling to pay the fees to ESPN to allow for streaming ESPN3 games?
  2. Second, my parents who live in Montana can access ESPN3 through their internet connection (I verified). With technology these days, they can even stream the internet to their TV. They're certainly not the only household in Montana who can do this. They just have a decent internet/cable plan. I wonder how many people signed the petition who could have watched the game anyway (but didn't bother to check).
  3. Third, I don't get why ESPN's solution solves the initial problem. The primary issue was that Montanans would not be able to watch the game on local television. ESPN is offering to charge willing buyers a one-time fee of $25 to broadcast the game. It won't be on the local channel. Moreover, it sounds expensive, yet this is a "touchdown" for the senators.

At the end of the day, I commend ESPN for working this outrageous situation into a profit-making opportunity. Plenty of Montanans will sign up for this pay-per-view service, which will make it worth it for ESPN. Moreover, ESPN didn't cave and give away the valuable exclusive broadcasting rights. Judging by the outrage, the people of Montana were willing to pay to watch the game. ESPN gave them the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. If you value watching the game so much to sign a petition, is it worth $25? If not, there's always the radio.

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Update (11/30; 9:57 am): It's worth mentioning another reason that offering ESPN Gameplan coverage may be beneficial. The Gameplan broadcast makes broadcasting the game at sports bars much easier. Sports bars could probably find a way to hook the internet up to their televisions to broadcast ESPN3, but many of these local institutions already have ESPN Gameplan (or would order it to attract patrons on Saturday). Indeed, by making the broadcast available through pay-per-view subscription, ESPN helped local taverns more easily broadcast the game. By offering ESPN Gameplan coverage, the executives at ESPN effectively allowed anyone who can go to a bar the opportunity to watch the game. It's not on a local channel, but combined with sports bars' profit motive, it can be a local football experience.

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