The NFL Monopoly
by Brian North

East Carolina's spring football game will attract a nice crowd of interested spectators who want to get a taste of the Pirates as they enter Skip Holtz' second season. The game won't be televised, but local TV cameras will be present on the sidelines to catch the highlights and feature the top ECU players. (Editor's Note: Pirate Radio 1250 & 930 live coverage of the 2006 ECU Spring Football Game begins at 1:30 p.m.) It's something local media have been doing since television was invented.

But the times, they are a changing. At the last NFL Owners meeting, you probably heard about the changes in replay, or the more stringent rules on touchdown celebrations (the rant on that absurd rule made by rich old white men to try and control young African American men is for another article in the future), but you may not have heard about the rule that will ban local television stations from the sidelines of NFL games.

The move was approved by NFL Owners, and according to the Detroit News, was intended by the NFL to "protect its property rights and remove some of the congestion on the sidelines." But if you have ever looked on the sidelines of an NFL game, there are probably 30 to 50 of those local videographers working. Most of the "congestion" comes from "hangers on" usually associated with the team or major sponsors.

I think the NFL could care less about local television stations. The NFL cares more about the networks (see; money) including its own. The NFL doesn't see a revenue stream from local stations, so there for they are being banished. The RTNDA is urging the league to reconsider putting itself "in a position of subverting the American tradition of a free press."

How does this affect you, the viewer? It will certainly limit your choices for player features and in depth reporting you probably won't find on the network level. "This greatly affects us and dozens of stations around the country who do numerous news shows, talk shows, etc. about NFL teams," said one industry source. "It looks like the NFL Network is turning into the behemoth we all feared."

I agree. I think that this is all about limiting the available images of the National Football League's primary product, giving only NFL Films and the NFL Network the ability to supplement the shots generated by the television coverage of each game. This reduces the quality of video, and limits what features a station can do, especially when it involves local stories. Imagine if the Jaguars visited the Panthers, and I wanted to do a story on former ECU QB David Garrard (which I have done a couple of times). I would only be able to use the video that appeared on Fox/CBS/NBC/ESPN, or pay for the NFL Films or NFL Network version, which would reduce the quality of the story. It may sound trivial, but where else are you going to be able to find a good David Garrard feature.

But the NFL monopoly started long ago. The NFL already owns the rights to any NFL game footage no matter where it comes from. That means even though I use my stations camera, my stations tape, and my stations batteries; any video shot on the sidelines of an NFL game is actually owned by the NFL, and they can hold stations hostage. When the Panthers went to the Super Bowl February of 2004, my station sent me to Houston to cover the big game and give the local perspective. To offset costs of the trip, we put together a half hour show. But we couldn't show more than 2 minutes of game footage without paying a fee. Any more than the two minutes would cost us thousands of dollars per 30 seconds of NFL game footage used even though it was our hard work that produced the video. It doesn't seem right, but someone a lot smarter than me figured out how to milk that cash cow long ago.

I expect the local stations in NFL cities to scream at the top of their lungs to the networks with which they are affiliated. Hopefully the networks, in turn, will express to the NFL confusion regarding the move to ban them from the sidelines. Remember, this is the first year of the new billion-dollar broadcast contracts. Although the networks are only paying for the right to air the games, the NFL's decision to slap the faces of the network affiliates is not a good customer relations practice.

The hope, then, is that the NFL will do the right thing and reverse this rule. And even though the print media doesn't have much to gain by taking up this cause, we hope that they'll do the right thing, too, and encourage the NFL to change its position.

This is just the start for America's most popular game. I can see a day when the NFL will eventually move to a pay per view format for most games. Most cable companies already make patrons pay extra for the NFL Network, and several regular season games have been moved there this year, which will deprive some fans of seeing their favorite teams play. It just makes you wonder where the future of football for fans is headed.

Brian North