They Might Be Paying to See Their Favorites : NFL: Decision to begin charging bars and restaurants for satellite transmissions could cost fans.


It has been more than 30 years since Bob Drace lived in a town outside Green Bay, Wis.

But every Sunday during the football season, he has the feeling of home, meeting with family and friends at a restaurant in Puente Hills.

What brings the 90 or so Wisconsin natives together is not the chance to hear familiar accents or eat bratwurst or talk about ice fishing.

It is their love for the Green Bay Packers, whom they gather to watch on a special feed from a satellite dish.

The restaurant is opened early, just for them. The TV is tuned into the game for as long it lasts, just for them.

"It's really something to be so far from home, spending time with people who know where you are coming from," Drace said. "It would be a real shame to see that end."

That became a possibility this week with the announcement that the NFL will begin charging bars and restaurants for satellite transmissions of its games. Previously, those telecasts were free if they were not assigned to the region.

Although the league stands to net more than $100 million a year by some estimates, there will be another effect in Southern California.

Hundreds of fan groups from other parts of the country, most with at least several hundred members each, gather in area bars and restaurants every Sunday with assurances that their favorite team will be shown on TV.

The nearly 2,000-member Southern California Browns Backers Assn. has agreements with 27 area establishments to show Cleveland Brown games every week.

With the new rule, fans can still watch their hometown team together. But they expect to be asked to absorb the higher cost through increased food prices or a cover charge.

Or worse, say some, they will be forced to leave longtime Sunday gathering spots for larger, more impersonal spots because smaller businesses can no longer afford to host them.

"We won't go to a big place or a bar, because we have a lot of children in our group, we emphasize the family," Drace said. "This could be the end of Pacific Packers."

Under the new rules, establishments with 100 seats or fewer will be charged $699 for a full season.

The biggest establishments in Southern California, with seating from 201 to 600, will be charged $1,899.

Those with home satellites can purchase the plan for $99 until Aug. 15, and thereafter for $139.

Officials at the National Sports Grill's two large franchises in Orange County, one containing 400 seats, would not comment. But observers believe they will not institute a cover charge, or even increase their prices, because they will attract many more customers.

Milton Galik, general manager of Java Lanes in Long Beach, is not feeling quite so lucky.

Although his 60-seat bar and restaurant have been filled with Cleveland Brown fans every Sunday, he wonders whether he can continue to entertain them while paying $699.

"I think what the NFL did was fair--big bars have been charging enormous drink prices during games while getting those games for free," Galik said. "I'm just not so sure it can work for me."

Jeff Wagner, Browns Backers president whose answering machine features the voice of Bernie Kosar, said his members would be willing to put up with the new deal's inconveniences because of its advantages.

No longer will the bartenders have to search for the proper satellite feed, sometimes missing the beginning of the game in the process. No longer will those feeds change in mid-game--an old NFL trick--forcing the bartenders to renew the search.

The new package will place every game on the same feed for the entire afternoon.

"I used to come to work every Sunday with acid in my stomach because I was wondering where we would find the Browns game for all these people," said Keith Phillips, owner of the Rose & Crown Restaurant in Orange County.

Also, no longer will bouncers be forced to break up fights between fans who want to see the completion of the 10 a.m. game and Raider or Ram fans who want to see a pirated satellite transmission of a blacked-out home game.

All blacked-out games now will be scrambled from all feeds.

And no more poor reception, particularly on regional games that were placed on hard-to-find feeds because of lack of interest.

"If it costs us a little extra to ensure that we will see the whole game, it is worth it," Wagner said.

Although Tola Murphy-Baran of NFL Enterprises refused to be interviewed, the league apparently will find this deal worth it in Southern California alone.

According to the California Restaurant Assn., there are 6,076 establishments in Los Angeles and Orange County that serve food and alcohol.

While the number of transplanted football fans is difficult to calculate, the Browns Backers say they are the biggest sports fan club of any kind in the country.

Officials at the NFL Players Assn., who had the foresight to include satellite transmissions as part of shared revenue in the recent Basic Agreement, also think it is worth it.

"If all those bars showing these games were letting people in for nothing, and not charging any money for alcohol, then it wouldn't be an issue," said Doug Allen, NFLPA assistant executive director.

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