Sen. Spector taking aim at NFL antitrust exemption

Updated: December 7, 2006, 11:47 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Maybe it was simply the rantings of a man in his final days as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee before Democrats officially take control of Congress. Or perhaps just a grandstand play by a guy whose Philadelphia-area constituents are caught in the middle of the ongoing battle between The NFL Network and Comcast Corp., the cable broadcasting giant.

Whatever his motivation, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., claimed at the end of a Thursday hearing that he will sponsor legislation to strip the NFL of the antitrust exemption that permits the league to negotiate its television contracts for all 32 franchises, rather than have the teams do so individually.

"Wouldn't consumers be better off if teams could negotiate [individually]?" Specter said. "This is the NFL exerting its power right down to the last nickel."

The remarks were included in a news release forwarded to ESPN.com by Specter's office. The hearing was originally convened to explore the clout that some cable companies, like Comcast, exert in sports programming and the establishment of fees for access to such broadcasts.

Specter said the NFL should not use the exemption to negotiate exclusive programming packages such as DirectTV Inc.'s "Sunday Ticket," which allows viewers to watch teams outside their regional market.

"As I look at what the NFL is doing today with the NFL channel with the DirectTV ... a lot of people, including myself, would like to be able to have that ticket," Specter said.

Among the grievances cited by Specter in what he termed a "fans be damned" mentality demonstrated by the NFL was the relocation of franchises, and decisions like the one that moved Monday Night Football from ABC, an over-the-air network broadcaster, to ESPN, a cable entity.

The league, of course, negotiates the national contracts for all its teams. Individual franchises hold their own deals for preseason contests and for local radio broadcasts of preseason and regular-season games. The loss of the antitrust exemption, which certainly appears unlikely, would prohibit the NFL from bargaining for all 32 of its member teams.

Under such a scenario, teams would negotiate their own broadcast contracts, and some franchises clearly would command much larger rights fees than others. Currently, all of the league's teams share the rights fees equally, and that is the cornerstone of the NFL revenue-sharing model.

Specter did not elaborate on when he might propose such legislation. When the new Congress convenes after the New Year, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will be the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

In a statement, the league said Thursday night that, while it is sensitive to Specter's concerns, there is no basis for repealing the antitrust exemption. The NFL added that its broadcast practices are "consistent with the public interest."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.