Sports & Law: The Corporate View of the Fan

Sports & Law: The Corporate View of the Fan

It was dubbed "The Evolution of the Fan", but last week's Harvard Sports Law Symposium was, instead, an opportunity for corporations that dominate the sports and entertainment universe to talk about their business and legal strategies. For a law school whose faculty includes some of the most vibrant thinkers about telecommunications, internet and copyright policy, it was a symposium that oddly featured only the corporate view, a view that many of these thinkers have made a career of challenging.

Telecomm Monopoly? No, Comcast is a great partner

If you were a supplier of a service and its distribution depended on one of your competitors, the complications you encounter would be fascinating to explore. Yet Ed Weiss, General Counsel of the Fenway Sports Group and the New England Sports Network, and Ed Durso, Executive Vice President of ESPN, didn't even mention that their fellow panelist, Brett Goodman, Senior Vice President of NBC Sports worked for Comcast, their competitor and distributor. Comcast's controversial purchase of NBC is the centerpiece of Susan Crawford's recent book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, and serves as the lens through which she examines the consolidation of the telecommunications industry. Crawford, a visiting Law School faculty member, notes that Comcast's acquisition of regional sports networks has been part of its monopolization strategy. If you happen to be a fan of the Boston Celtics, you need to buy services from Comcast, as they own the broadcast rights. Asked about the conflicting interests of competition and distribution, both Durso and Weiss said that Comcast was a great partner with which to work. One can understand their need to say exactly that.

It was Google that defeated that excellent SOPA proposal, not all those activists

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Law and Society, went on The Colbert Report to call the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) an equivalent of the Great China Firewall, likening it to the policies of totalitarian governments. But to Durso and Weiss, SOPA was just a common sense remedy to the pirating of their products. The prevailing narrative among academics and activists, for which Berkman is a nexus, is that SOPA was blocked by determined grassroots activism that heralded a new political maturity for those activists. Durso, however, saw it differently. "Google came in and in three days undid a year of work our industry did on [Capitol] Hill," Durso said. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig turned from copyright work a number of years ago because copyright law was being written by industry in just that way. Instead, Lessig is working on fundamental political reform and calls this sort of influence of industry "institutional corruption."

Forget it, cordcutters

Observers of the television industry grow excited at the slightest hint of new business models. No network has gotten more attention on this front than HBO as it has developed its own mobile and tablet environment, HBO-GO, and seems uniquely poised to be able to sell its content directly viewers, bypassing cable TV distributors and allowing viewers to cut the cord of cable TV. It won't happen, said Ken Hershman, President of HBO Sports, pictured above, during his keynote speech. Cord-cutters represent about 2% of HBO's potential audience, Hershman said, and ones that are going through a youthful phase. Once they mature and start to have families, he said, they'll be back to cable to get the sort of entertainment their children will demand. Experiments in standalone HBO subscriptions that HBO are undertaking in Europe were just that, he said, and are of no real importance.

A là carte channels? No, we're making too much money this way

Another hot topic among media analysts is al là carte purchasing of cable channels. It is a major consumer complaint that, in order to purchase the channels they want, they're forced to buy a package of channels that, mostly, they'll never watch. That won't happen either, according to Durso. There's too much money being made with the current model for anyone to put that at risk.

It's all about the men

It was not until the last panel of the day, about "The Internet Experience" that any womn appeared as panelists. In reaction to an audience comment - which was greeted with applause - symposium organizers took pains to outline the efforts they made to find female panelists for earlier panels. But it was Lauren Fisher, Vice President and General Counsel for Vox Media/SBNation, who was more blunt about it. Sports, she said, was of, by and for, largely, men. Her company, staff and freelancers, was about 18% female, but her own law department was entirely female. This was, she emphasized, because she hired the best people, though the rest of the organization views that with a certain amusement. Leaving the symposium, walking down a hallway of the Harvard Law School lined with portraits of influential faculty most of them white and male, one came upon a symposium of the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender on the challenges and obstacles faced by outsiders. One was left to wonder what the attendees of that symposium would have had to say to those of us who spent the day thinking about sports law.

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Thanks, Saul. Esp appreciate the comments re: women.