Tagliabue Seems to Be Scrambling Over Scrambling Issue : NFL: He says advertisers wanted to make telecasts unavailable to satellite dish owners, but a major sponsor denies that.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Wednesday that plans to “scramble” its fall telecasts were carried out at the urging of major advertisers--a statement promptly denied by one of the league’s biggest commercial sponsors.
Meanwhile, fans across the country began threatening a boycott of some sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch., Inc., which issued a statement saying that scrambling was “strictly” the decision of the league and the television networks.
Despite the outcry and growing congressional opposition, Tagliabue said the NFL foresaw no change in its television policy, which authorizes scrambling with the start of the regular season a week from Sunday.
Speaking out for the first time about the controversy, the commissioner said, “Baseball and other sports and the motion-picture industry have been scrambling signals for some time. We’re just catching up with the rest of the entertainment industry.”
Tagliabue said the purpose of the policy is to protect the interests of those who advertise on NFL games.
“We bring 100 games into every market every year,” he said. “We have to protect the integrity of advertisers.”
But a spokesman for Anheuser-Busch said from its St. Louis headquarters that his firm was “in no way” involved in the scrambling decision.
“Anheuser-Busch as a company was not involved at any point in the decision made to scramble these satellite transmissions (of NFL games),” said the spokesman, who asked not to be quoted by name. “It’s strictly an NFL and network decision. Since Anheuser-Busch is not involved in that decision, we would like to believe that a boycott of our products is something we have no control over.”
The spokesman added that “any kind of boycott would be detrimental to our company.” He said that Anheuser-Busch had expressed its “concern” to the league about scrambling, but as to whether the company might have “leverage” with the NFL, he sighed and said, “It’s too early to talk about that.”
Norman Lebovitz, a San Diego restaurateur who has organized a Southern California grass-roots effort called the Assn. for Sports Fans’ Rights, said Wednesday that his group advocates the boycott of Budweiser beer and other Anheuser-Busch products advertised on NFL telecasts. Lebovitz said that his group was planning to join forces with the Miami-based United Sports Fans of America, “which will put our membership over 4,000.”
“The boycott is obviously to force Anheuser-Busch and other brewing companies to help us,” Lebovitz said, “to let them know what the fan means.”
Lebovitz said he was supported by various Los Angeles interests, including fan clubs for the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
“We’re going to boycott Budweiser and other NFL sponsors,” said Dan Scott, whose 150-member Green Bay Packers Pacific Boosters Club meets fall Sundays at a restaurant in West Covina, Calif. “They’re one of the biggest NFL sponsors. We buy their beer and drink their beer, along with other sponsors’. Now it’s time for them to support us.”
Lebovitz, a transplanted Chicagoan whose chain of family-oriented restaurants called Sluggo’s champion a Windy City theme and draw large crowds for Cubs and Bears games, said that he had received “calls and letters of support” from New Orleans, Baltimore and Honolulu.
Anthony Lombardi, who owns a San Diego sports bar called the Hungry Stick Satellite Sports Cafe, said that he, too, backed the boycott. He said a boycott had been determined to be the “most effective tool” for restaurateurs and bar owners to fight NFL scrambling.
“We’re one of the largest distributors of Bud in San Diego County,” Lombardi said. “They’re supporting something that’s taking away our rights. If we’re successful in boycotting the sale of Bud across the country, they would have to recognize that and somehow deal with it.
“I don’t want to have to pull Bud out, but I will do it if this doesn’t stop. The most important thing here is the issue of scrambling.”
Earlier this week, congressional opposition to NFL scrambling began to mount, with Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) saying he intends to introduce “de-scrambling” legislation after Congress reconvenes Sept. 4.
A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) cited the league’s tenuous position with respect to antitrust laws, and an aide to Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) said the league’s decision to scramble--minus the option to “de-scramble,” with an authorized de-coder and the payment of a fee--would all but eliminate rural America from the NFL audience. (Such de-scrambling options are common among Home Box Office, ESPN, TNT and other cable networks.)
Author David Halberstam, whose non-fiction works have included studies on the impact of mass media and sports, said Wednesday that he found the league’s scrambling decision “pointless . . . gratuitous.”
“By dealing with the most rural people in the country, they’re taking action against those who have the frailest hold of connecting to the product,” Halberstam said. “While such people would like to be connected to cable, they’re not. This is a sign of some of the changes in society.
“They’re changes wrought by the coming of cable and the dilemma of the networks. In terms of dollars, the NFL won’t make any more dollars. It seems to be steps taken out of nervousness. The decision is not the step of a confident institution.”
Tagliabue, on the subject of speeding up games, said the league is considering revising new rules to get three or four plays back into the game.
Speaking on a conference call with football writers, Tagliabue acknowledged that he was surprised that the new procedures, adopted last March, had sped up games by 15 minutes--from 3:07 during last year’s exhibition season to 2:52 this season.
“If we can make regular-season games 9-10 minutes shorter than last year, I think we’d have accomplished our purpose,” Tagliabue said.
Last year, regular-season games averaged 3:11.
Under the revisions, the clock keeps running on out-of-bounds plays and after kickoffs except in the last two minutes of the first half and last five minutes of the game.
That has eliminated an average of 10 plays a game in the exhibition season rather than the half-dozen the league anticipated. As a result, Tagliabue is considering recommending restoring a clock stoppage after kickoffs, a move he said could restore 1 minute, 20 seconds or three to four plays.