One of the best inventions in sports broadcasting is NFL Sunday Ticket, which famously allows football fans to watch their favorite team every Sunday, no matter where they live. Unfortunately, this is a luxury that is afforded only to DirecTV subscribers, meaning that those with cable are stuck with whatever games are in their local area unless they are willing to make a switch (which may not always be the most economically feasible).
Obviously, this has been the source of much frustration and controversy (especially when similar services like NBA League Pass are available on a variety of platforms), and people are fed up with having limited viewing options when it comes to football Sundays. The NFL and its broadcasting partners have now been hit with an antitrust lawsuit in regards to the Sunday Ticket package.
On Friday, October 16 (hat tip Variety), five plaintiffs who have purchased the Sunday Ticket service filed a lawsuit against the NFL, DirecTV, NBC, Fox, CBS, and ESPN in New York District Court. The lawsuit is specifically targeted at Sunday Ticket, which the plaintiffs believe is “unique among American sports” and enables DirecTV to charge very high prices for the service. Cost can be as much as $359 per season.
A majority of the plaintiffs in the case operate commercial establishments that show football games during the season, and arguably have it much worse than an individual in a residential home. Sports bars have to pay anywhere from $1,458 to $120,000 per year for Sunday Ticket, which is 10 times more than they pay for other professional sports packages. It’s true that they could decide to not purchase Sunday Ticket, but NFL football is in very high demand during the fall, and these businesses would be costing themselves a great deal of money if they did not provide programming their patrons would be interested in.
The biggest point of contention in the lawsuit is that DirecTV forces customers to pay for all 32 teams in the NFL, even if a fan is only interested in a few teams’ games. The plaintiffs feel that the NFL “unlawfully monopolizes” the distribution of live games by blocking out other potential services via their agreement with DirecTV. They would like to see each team be able to offer viewing access to its games individually, so fans can pick and choose:
“The teams have agreed not to avail themselves of cable, satellite or Internet distribution channels individually. In the absence of an agreement, each team would have an incentive to distribute its games nationally in these channels. Given the relatively low cost of Internet streaming and satellite and cable television carriage, each team acting independently would offer their games at a competitive price to anybody in the country who wanted to watch that particular team.”
Other services like NBA League Pass Broadband allow fans to purchase individual games or get a season pass for a specific team (in addition to a full access subscription), so there would definitely be a market for something like this. Many NFL fans probably purchase Sunday Ticket just so they can see their favorite team play, and the ability to get a cheaper one team pass is more appealing than the $359 price tag for the full league. Particularly with the NFL Red Zone channel (which offers live look-ins at every game on Sunday), the need to get something like Sunday Ticket has greatly diminished.
It will be interesting to see if anything becomes of this lawsuit and the NFL’s broadcasting system (which has been in place for years) gets altered in any significant way. For those holding out hope, it’s worth mentioning that while the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 has an antitrust exemption for the free broadcasting of pro sports (i.e. on your local CBS affiliate), that exemption does not extend to pay TV like satellite. Maybe the plaintiffs have a legitimate case?