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Former Bush Senior Staffer on Comcast's Blazers "Monopoly": "They could make a deal. They choose not to. Two reasons: greed and control."

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I don't even need to stand up to slam Comcast.  

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I don't even need to stand up to slam Comcast. via cache.daylife.com

I always knew Comcast's handling of its Blazers television rights was bad.  But I never knew exactly how bad.  That changed yesterday when, during a telephone interview, a former Bush White House Senior Staffer slammed the company's greed and decried its lack of transparency. I'm not sure it gets worse than that.  When those guys think you've crossed those lines ... you're doing it wrong.  Really wrong.

And that's exactly what happened during my Wednesday afternoon phone interview with Brad Blakeman, George W. Bush's Deputy Assistant to the President for Appointments and Scheduling.  If you google him, you'll find out pretty quickly that the internet generally dislikes him for his strong conservative stances.  Blakeman is also a self-professed sports fan, though, and he is currently a board member for the Sports Fans Coalition, a national advocacy group whose main goal is to further the fan's interests when it comes to issues like publicly-financed stadiums and television availability of games.  Blakeman isn't the group's only heavy hitter.  David Goodfriend, President Clinton's Deputy Staff Secretary, is the SFC's chairman. Access to sports, Blakeman says, "is a truly bipartisan issue." Word to that.

So what does the SFC have to do with you and the Blazers? Well, they were in Salem yesterday to provide testimony at a hearing called by the Oregon State House, whose Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Accountability is investigating Comcast's eternally shady failure to strike a deal with the satellite companies for distribution of Blazers games.

TheOregonPolitico.com has extensive, excellent coverage of the hearing.  They've got video interviews, transcripts, the whole nine yards.  They summarize yesterday's proceedings...

Coverage of the state's biggest sports franchise, the Portland Trail Blazers, was the sole topic of conversation at the final House Consumer Protection Committee's hearing Wednesday afternoon.

The informational hearing was held to allow discussion from interested parties on the controversy of Comcast SportsNet's Trail Blazer coverage. The meeting drew testimony from the Sports Fan Coalition, Comcast SportsNet, and John Canzano, one of the state's most influential sports writers.

The controversy erupted after the Trail Blazers entered into agreement with Comcast SportsNet to locally broadcast all of the team's games on either that channel or on KGW, Portland's NBC affiliate. Tempers began to flare when locals not in an area to receive Comcast cable were no longer able to watch the Blazer games at home.

It's great to see Canzano take a break from getting worked by Chip Kelly to continue to speak on the one issue he has gotten completely right from the get-go. It's also great to see Representative Jefferson Smith, who has contributed to Blazersedge in the past, stand up for his fellow Blazers fans.  As quoted by Joe Freeman... 

"I'm not persuaded that (we) should do nothing," Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, said. "I'm not persuaded that this is merely a private sector fight and we should leave it up to the private sector. There is a role for us to ask the kind of question that this raises. And if there is nothing an Oregon Legislature can do, then who does?"

But did the hearing matter?  I confess that my first thought when I heard about this hearing is that it had every element necessary for a dog and pony show: Politicians, Comcast, and John Canzano.  Freeman concludes...

After listening to official testimony about the limited availability of the broadcast of Blazers games, the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Accountability walked away unsure, if not uneasy, about what role they could play in stimulating a resolution. 

The committee met in an informational meeting and now must decide what, if anything, to do next to help Oregonians in their efforts to watch Blazers games.     

All in all, it's difficult to state that yesterday's hearing represents real progress, although a public shaming of Comcast always makes for a good time.  With that in mind, why don't you click through for my interview with Blakeman, who gets up on the bully pulpit to:

  • Slam Comcast's "monopoly" 
  • Send a message to the Portland Trail Blazers to stand up for their fans
  • Request that the Oregon legislature and its representatives work to hold up approving Comcast's merger with NBC until Comcast gets the necessary deals done here in Oregon. 

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

Blazersedge: Is this a pretty unusual thing for a state government to do? To call a cable company's practices into question like this and to solicit feedback from people such as yourself and other media members?  Or is this something that has happened other places around the country?

I think it is probably unique but that's not to say that it's not a good thing to do. I think it's exactly what the doctor ordered. A little transparency and sunshine on these deals that tend to be made behind closed doors.

We're not seeking to interfere with contracts between two entities -- in this case the Trail Blazers and Comcast -- what we're doing is we want to call into question why Comcast didn't do what they said they were going to several years ago in making home teams available to their competitors at a price that can be passed along to the consumers of Dish or any other entity.  

The past two years the Trail Blazers have been sold out. Yet there are 10,000s of fans who are locked out of seeing home games because they don't have Comcast, not by choice in some instances. Comcast isn't a deliverable where they live.  They have other ways of getting programming. So why doesn't Comcast do what they originally said they were going to do and make this home game issue go away by providing it to competitors so that every Trail Blazer fan can watch in the comfort of their home or their favorite restaurant or bar?

Blazersedge: That's a question we've asked many times. The answer that always comes from Comcast is "we're negotiating in good faith we just haven't reached a price that we consider fair for both sides." Do you take them at their word when they say that? 

Absolutely not. If they wanted to make a deal, they could make a deal. They choose not to. Two reasons: greed and control. They control the market, they control the price. The Trail Blazers are your only professional sports team. In fact they have a monopoly over who sees the games and who doesn't. It's not right and it's not fair for the sports fans. We started this organization to fight for the sports fans. And heretofore they've been on the sidelines and we're here to make sure they take the field and at least be heard.

Blazersedge: "Monopoly" is a word that I think Comcast would probably push back against pretty hard.  

It is what it is. It is a monopoly on games and it's deliverable. Yes, they made a contract with the Trail Blazers to the tune of, we believe, 10 years and 120 million [dollars].  They initially made representation that they would provide home games to their competitors at a fair price. That has not been done. Yet now they are seeking Oregon's help in the anti-trust exemption for the merger between Comcast and NBC. Now they want something again from the people.

I think it's up to the people to say, 'Hey, wait a second. Before we seek to grant you antitrust status, we want to find out why it is that you never reached a deal with your competitors to deliver these games like you had promised to do in good faith.' I think it's time for the government now to turn the tables on Comcast and say, "What have you done? You haven't acted in good faith, why do you want us to broaden your business model with now merging with NBC?'

Blazersedge: What do you make of the deals Comcast has announced with some of the minor cable companies in Oregon? Some have painted those deals as a kind of ruse or a distraction from the fact they haven't come to terms with the larger providers.

Of course. It's to say, 'Hey, look, we made a deal! And we can make a deal with our other competitors but we're not there yet.'  Well how long is it going to take to make a deal? In the meantime, who is suffering? The fans are suffering. They can't even go to a game because the games are sold out.

It really is a position -- nobody has turned the heat up on Comcast. Now Comcast comes hat in hand to the government of Oregon and says, 'approve our merger. Don't stand in the way of our Merger." Oregonians are saying, 'Wait a second Comcast, you have a lot of explaining to do.'

It's because nobody heretofore has given them a voice and has shed light on what is being done on what directly affects them. We now have a Chapter started here in Oregon and we're going to make sure that the people of Oregon are well-informed about what is going on with the Trail Blazers and Comcast.

Blazersedge: Up to this point, you have been a national advocacy group and now you have a local chapter here in Portland. Has that mostly or almost totally come about because of this unique situation with the Blazers and Comcast or is it something else about Portland that made you start your first local chapter here?

I think this was obviously the catalyst by which to start a chapter here. Our plan and our goal is to have a chapter in every state and then in every major market within the state because sports is a literally 100s of billions of dollars business. In our economy it's larger than the US auto industry. And the fans are directly affected by contracts they are not even a party to. But they're beneficiaries of and they should have a voice. Agreements should be honored when it affects them. Promises should be kept.

Blazersedge: There's a lot of skepticism in Portland about Comcast and how they will continue to stall, stall, stall on the deals so they can continue to gain subscribers. What do you think is a reasonable best case scenario for Blazers fans at this point in terms of when they can expect coverage to open up?

Well, we have a good start. They should write their Congress people. Because the merger that Comcast and NBC are taking is a national merger. They should also be talking to their state legislators and put some heat on.  One thing is for sure: the State House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Accountability has taken note of it. And maybe with the Comcast testimony today it will be a start where this is going to be seen to fruition and Comcast is going to be made to do what they said they were going to do originally.  

But now they want something from the people. They want the citizens of Oregon through their government to approve their merger. Shame on the government of Oregon if they give a knee jerk approval to it when Comcast has not honored their agreement to provide games to the thousands of fans who are locked out.

Blazersedge: What kind of scene do you expect in Salem?  Do you think this is for show or do you think they are really serious about questioning Comcast?

I think they are [serious]. I don't think they would go through this as a dog and pony show. I think they are serious about it and they want to get to the bottom of it and this is a good start. In doing it and shedding some light on a situation that has been pretty much stonewalled the last couple years.

Blazersedge: What motivated you to get involved with the Sports Fan Coalition? A personal sports interest or something else?

It's mainly fairness and equity. I believe that when government funds are used to build arenas that there should be fair stadium pricing. I think fans should not be locked out of their favorite teams being shown on television. I believe that fans need to be more represented when they are the direct beneficiaries and in some cases the brunt of the decisions that are made int heir name.  But nobody has ever bothered to consult them. Whether it's the municipality, the team or the television provider. I think they deserve a voice even though they aren't party to the contract legally, per se, they certainly deserve a voice in the decisions that are made on their behalf.

Yeah, I'm a sports fan. But more important than that, I thrive on public policy, good public policy, I've been involved in it all my life. And this is a truly bipartisan issue. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I believe fans deserve a right to be fairly.  

Blazersedge: What would you tell the Blazers to do from today forward?  The past is the past.  But what is your message to the team that signed this contract that has left so many of its fans stranded?

They should say, 'Comcast, do the right thing. Our games are sold out, we have an avid sports audience throughout the state and it's hurting our franchise not being able to have games provided. Please make the deal.' Put pressure on. Come to the side of the sports fan. They're in the right here. They're the ones who are aggrieved by the decision by Comcast not to act in good faith.

You can also check out Blakeman's full testimony yesterday here.  If you're passionate about the television issue, as I know thousands of you are, you might consider giving the SFC a look-through.  Here's their website.  For information about their Portland chapter, click here.  They've also got a petition to the Oregon State House demanding coverage of Blazers games, which you can sign here.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter