August 10, 2009
Last month's ceremonious unveiling of the SEC's sweetheart deal with ESPN was greeted with characteristic chest-thumping from conference homers and hostile indifference from pretty much everyone else, and if there was any trepidation beneath the giddy exuberance of world domination at last month's media blowout in Birmingham about what price might be extracted in return, it went largely unreported.
The other shoe has dropped at last, and it is large, red, and suitable for clown wear. Here be the .pdf file containing the new SEC policies for appropriating content (that is, highlights and pictures and stuff from televised games) by media types and ticket buyers, and they are doozies. The crew of Rocky Top Talk, no legal novices themselves, has a tag-team breakdown of the most egregious bits:
"No Bearer may produce or disseminate (or aid in producing or disseminating) any material or information about the Event, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, audio, reproduction, or other information concerning the Event, other than in speech that cannot be restricted under the First Amendment, in any form." You read that right: no picture-taking. No cell pics, no cell videos. No Twittering. No calling your best friend and explaining what just happened. That's the letter of the law in this term of the contract (always remember; this is a contract). How far will the SEC pursue this? I have no idea, but the language is in place to give them as much freedom as they want.
This is standard boilerplate for professional leagues -- it lacks only that great rhetorical, legalistic flourish, "Without the express written consent ..." -- and not hard to see coming when the Big Ten Network (which to its credit remains relatively hands-off regarding its content, for the time being) set up shop to aggregate and control its brand two years ago.
Fortunately, as RTT concludes, a large portion of this new devilry seems unenforceable (perhaps hilariously so) against the teeming mass of non-credentialed "media," which technically includes anyone who deigns to broadcast, publish or relay anything connected to an SEC/ESPN broadcast anywhere. Not even the SEC or the Worldwide Leader has the resources to be that draconian. The real victims here, as noted above, will be the traditional, small-market media types who actually need to earn a living from game coverage without the assistance of a large-market newspaper or TV network but risk losing their access altogether if they turn to other means.
No, it's not the specifics of the deal that concern us here so much as the impending avalanche of corporatization it portends. This is nothing so much as another inevitable step towards the unified, sanitized, streamlined, lawyered-out, skybox-dwelling corporate machine of the pro game. Conference networks, the haves and have-nots jockeying for favor in the BCS, rule changes to shorten games and add commercials, the perpetual prophecies of the coming of the superconference -- it's all heading in a singular, dreadful direction, and big money means the media monoliths aggressively assert their video rights and Phil Fulmer and Lloyd Carr must go. The age of the genial, home-grown dinosaur is over, and the asteroid burying them deep beneath layers of dust and ash may as well be emblazoned with a logo that says, "NFL Lite."