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Thursday, September 07, 2006
The NFL's New Sideline Ban: Another League Effort to Control Content

The NFL season kicks off this weekend. But for the first time this season, you will not see the same coverage that you experienced in the past from your favorite local T.V. newscaster before and after the game. That's because last March, NFL owners adopted a resolution that bans local television photographers from the sidelines during regular season games. The only media affected by the new rule are local television photographers. The new rule does not impact still photographers from newspapers or other print outlets. All local stations, including affiliates of networks that have rights to televise games, must clear the sidelines 20 minutes before kickoff and they can return to do postgame interviews. Also, local stations are banned from having sets for pre-game shows on the field or anywhere that uses the field as a backdrop.

The NFL says the purpose of the rule is to protect their most important asset, the video content of the games, as well as clearing congestion from the sidelines during games. The NFL also says that stations can continue to show highlights using every play of every game from network telecasts. But local news stations are very upset about the new rule. According to Mike Shipley, news director at KSDK in St. Louis:

It's a question of fairness. It's a question of access. It's a question of creative control over our own storytelling process....We see great disparity in the fairness of this new rule... Our photographers will be kept in a room behind the scenes during the game. Should something happen in the stadium where the game is being played, we won't have the ability to photograph it for reporting purposes. In our role as the surrogate for the public owners of the building, we feel this controlled access is a slap in the face of the people who made it possible for the team to play here by building the Dome with tax dollars. The game itself notwithstanding, there are other reasons why access to the sidelines during a game should be allowed. Other newsworthy events can happen during a game that we would not be able to show you. Over the previous years, we've covered the heartwarming and the tragic with pictures and reporting our viewers have come to trust. That will no longer be possible.

The Detroit News interviewed the sports director of a local station in Detroit:

"It hurts us in so many ways," said Don Shane, sports director of Channel 7. "Therefore, it hurts the fan or the viewers. We care about the product. We care about making it look as good as we can for the fan." Shane contends that personal touches of game-day coverage will be lost. An example is a three-touchdown game by Roy Williams last season in the Lions' 29-21 victory over Arizona. After each touchdown, Williams handed the ball to a different fan in the stands. Channel 7's crew shot each fan. "The network was lucky to show one of those," Shane said. "We had each one of those plays. We went over and interviewed each kid. You no longer will have access to do those kinds of stories."

While the sideline ban may not be "fair" to local stations or to the local fans, the NFL appears to be within their legal rights to impose such a ban. The NFL has the legal right to control the broadcasts of its games. Indeed, networks pay the leagues huge fees in return for the right to broadcast the games. Furthermore, the news does not have any constitutional right to access sports facilities (even publicly funded stadiums) in the name of gathering newsworthy information. A constitutional law professor colleague of mine forwarded me this case quote in support of that proposition: “Where a private commercial venture presents a newsworthy event and grants exclusive rights of coverage to a news organization, freedom of the press does not confer an equal right of access on other news organizations, even though the event is presented in a facility which is owned and operated by government.” Post Newsweek Stations-Connecticut, Inc. v. Travelers Ins. Co., 510 F. Supp. 81 (D. Conn. 1981) (case involving a skating championship).

Putting the legal issues aside, is it a good business decision for the NFL to deny access to local television stations? Is this new rule another indication of a movement by the leagues to protect their most valuable asset, the content of their games, and to prevent the unjust enrichment of third parties? -- for example, MLB's disputes with CBC (the fantasy league) and the Slingbox maker. If so, doesn't that make good business sense?


I think a decision like this may have been spurred by the infamous Janet Jackson incident. The important thing, though, is that this will turn out to be another unpopular policy created by the NFL. From what I read and saw in the media, the decision to ban certain end zone celebrations was extremely unpopular; and now this. The NFL realizes their entertainment value, and similar to many other entertainment outlets they are attempting to regulate it.

Another example of this comes from the NHL. Although it may have not been made public, it was quite obvious that the networks covering the NHL last year (OLN and NBC) did their best to withhold from showing fights during games. By the end of the season, when they realized that fighting is a part of the game and people want to see it, they stopped going to commercial or giving long shots of the coach and fans during the fights.

Blogger WMUpsci_student -- 9/07/2006 1:07 PM  

From a business standpoint does the NFL believe that NFL football is such a national presence that the local stuff does not matter anymore? Or is it something else?

It's curious that you mention fantasy sports. In one way this decision is similar to the attack on fantasy stats. In another, it is inconsistent.

The presence of fantasy sports draws huge numbers of fans who might not otherwise pay quite as much attention. A fantasy owner's loyalty is to the players on his fantasy team, and those players are a cross-section of players from NFL teams all over the country. In that way, the NFL is celebrated as a league and at a national level.

Non-fantasy interest in the NFL tends to be localized with a particular team. It is rare that you meet someone who isn't focused on fantasy football and who says they love the NFL but don't have a favorite team. That's the core NFL fan.

ESPN highlights are fun, but if you are from Baltimore and you want more coverage than ESPN's NFL Primetime can alot to the Ravens, as participants in only one of the 15 games that day, you've got to look to the local station. Why risk depriving the core, non-fantasy fans of the opportunity to learn more about their local teams?

It's almost as if the NFL expects its fans to focus on the total league product, and less on a particular team. Fantasy leagues have made this plausible, but is it wise?

Perhaps it simply image-making? We, the NFL, will decide what image fans have of our game. We will package everything with a league-focus, not a team focus. We will not leave our image to chance, in the hands of local videographers.

But if that's the motive, why ban television cameras and not still cameras from local papers?

Is the motive simply money? They want local stations to have access, but perhaps this is the first step to the NFL selling the footage to local stations, who have little choice but to pay up to compete. After all, what product does your local sportscast get to offer you anymore, except the big games every weekend? High school sports?

I don't buy arguments about quality of the video content, at least not in any technical sense. The networks, and network cameramen, are the best in the business. That being said, there are some very talented videographers at local stations, particularly in the large media markets in which most games are played.

This is the sort of rule I believe the Bush administration would love to implement, it if wasn't for that pesky Constitution. :)

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 9/07/2006 2:25 PM  

The NFL is protecting their video content from what, exactly? Local TV provides pre-game talking head reports and post-game highlights (from field-level, I would add). From a purely business perspective, I fail to see how either of those threaten the value of the game content. Has the NFL provided a clear explanation of their stance on this? Something must have spurred this move.

Blogger Matthew Saunders -- 9/11/2006 9:50 AM  

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