Saturday, February 03, 2007

Can the NFL Really Be This Dumb?

The NFL has long been very protective of the use of the term "Super Bowl" in any commercial environment, if the NFL isn't getting paid for the use. That's why there are so many radio and TV ads talking about "the big game" or the "football championship", without referencing the words "Super Bowl". That's all well and good.

Now, though, it appears that the NFL has made a really bone-headed decision regarding Super Bowl viewing parties. Check out the website of Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, which was planning a huge bash to watch their hometown team play. Here's the news they have on their home page currently:

We regret to inform you that we have had to cancel our bash to view the Colts game this Sunday in a family friendly environment due to the fact that the NFL believes we would be in violation of the Copyright Act, because we had planned to show the game on a screen bigger than a 55 inch diagonal. We have appealed to their legal counsel and exhausted all options without success. We have been informed that the only exceptions to view the game are given to sports bars and restaurants. While we have argued that we only intend to provide a family oriented environment that will make no profit from the showing, the NFL claims that our event cannot proceed by law. Therefore, we have no choice but to challenge this in court or cancel the event. We choose to cancel the event. We deeply regret that we have been prohibited by the NFL from providing a family friendly environment for celebrating the Colts great season.
What in the world? Why would the NFL make exceptions for "sports bars and restaurants" but not for churches? If the church sells snacks at the party, does that turn them into a temporary restaurant? Obviously, the NFL decided not.

Does the NFL actually think this is going to help their image with those hundreds, maybe thousands, of church members in Indianapolis? Unbelievable.

According to this article on, other churches are also ending their Super Bowl viewing parties to accommodate the NFL's restrictions. It will be interesting to see, especially next year, if the NFL sticks to its guns on this. On the other hand, it appears that the largest church-sponsored Super Bowl party in our area (with thousands of attendees every year, free food and games, etc.) is still scheduled to continue. They must not have heard the news.

The most ridiculous statement here is from the NFL, referenced in the Falls Creek Church statement: "the NFL claims that our event cannot proceed by law". Oh, right... the NFL has its hands tied here. It wishes that it could provide an exception for churches, like it provides for bars and restaurants, but the law simply won't allow it. Yeah, whatever.

I predict that either the NFL will quietly rescind this policy very soon (maybe before this Super Bowl, if they have any sense, but at least before the next one)... or else this is going to be a big black eye for them come next year.



bcongdon said...

It's a federal copyright law from the 1960s that specifically exempts sports bars but not churches. At least, that's according to the LA Times.

bcongdon said...

I agree the NFL is being incredibly dumb about this.

Mark Congdon said...

Well, you got me curious, so I tracked down the law. Here it is, from the US Code. See in particular (5)(B); (i) applies to churches, (ii) is the exemption for small eating establishments.

It seems to me that the square footage and screen size exemptions are rather... outdated? The notes at the bottom (which are quite interesting, by the way) make it clear that the statute as written was intended as a response to (or overturning of) a Supreme Court ruling in 1975. Not quite the 60's, though maybe that's when the original form of the law was made, but certainly before 55-inch screens and 2500-square-foot homes were relatively commonplace. Under the law as written, anyone living in a 2500-square-foot home with a 60-inch TV who has a few friends over for the game is breaking the law.

The NFL does have a reasonable concern, though it seems to me there's a simple way around it. According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello (as quoted here): "The network economics are based on television ratings and at-home viewing. Out-of-home viewing is not measured by Nielsen." So, yes, the NFL will lose Nielsen ratings if a large portion of their viewing audience goes to watch the game in big groups.

The ironic thing is... the Super Bowl will also have many more dedicated viewers (it's harder to change the channel when you're in a large group), and much more grassroots advertising (when churches are advocating watching the Super Bowl, you're doing pretty well in the grassroots department). Advertisers should be much happier if more people are watching the game as a public social event.

The problem, then? Seems to be the Nielsen ratings. And, it seems to me that the NFL should have little difficulty convincing the Nielsen ratings to adjust their numbers for mass public viewings of broadcasts. I'd say that with the diversification of broadcast viewing, it's about time the Nielsen ratings got past their living-room couch fixation.

As I said before... I bet there will be solution for this by next year. This is making the NFL look really bad.


purple_kangaroo said...

That reminds me a bit of some of the children's clothing lines trying to make it so that nobody can buy or sell their brands on eBay. The exposure and raising the resale value does good things for the company, I would think. Seems like shooting themselves in the foot to make policy decisions like that.

Kevin said...

Your link to the US Code didn't work for me, Mark, so here's another: TITLE 17, CHAPTER 1, § 110. Limitations on exclusive rights: Exemption of certain performances and displays

To put it simply, I'm not impressed with copyright law, nor the bully tactics of wealthy organizations. Even if it is fair use, the price of a lengthy legal battle is too great to defend it. Perhaps ideally, an organization like EFF would take it on, but ultimately, I think the law needs to be changed. Unfortunately, there is not much money behind such interests.

I think the Bears make similar requirements regarding the use of their name. IIRC, a furniture store had a promotion where if the Bears win in a game then everyone's furniture for that month is free. They were contacted by the Bears to terminate their promotion.

purple_kangaroo said...
That reminds me a bit of some of the children's clothing lines trying to make it so that nobody can buy or sell their brands on eBay.

Strange. How were they doing that?