Comcast, NFL Knock Helmets Over ‘Thursday Night Football’

The legal action at the scrimmage line just keeps getting more intense between Comcast and the National Football League.

Comcast filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the NFL Thursday over a multimillion dollar marketing campaign to drive the operator’s subscribers to its competitors even though the distributor has a carriage agreement with the NFL Network.

Now, the league is evidently pursuing another legal pass following Comcast’s airing of NFL Network’s Dec. 13 Thursday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos-Houston Texans, outside of the Mile High City.

In addition to its cable, telco and satellite affiliates, NFL Network, under its contract, makes its eight primetime NFL games available in the home team’s markets via local TV stations. Those rights, according to the league, do not extend to secondary markets.

Comcast, which offers NFL Network on its digital sports tier, also presented the Broncos-Texans game via KWGN-CW, not only in the Denver DMA, but to viewers in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Trinidad, Colo. Those communities, located south of Denver, comprise their own DMA, the nation's 93rd largest, according to Nielsen.

A spokeswoman for Comcast Colorado said the operator had a retransmission consent pact with KWGN, the station which is owned by Tribune Broadcasting Co., enabling it to telecast the game into the Colorado Springs-Pueblo DMA.  

In an article published in the Dec. 14 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette, NFL spokesman Seth Palansky said the station’s deal only covers Denver and its suburbs, not secondary cities, and that if Comcast wanted to make the contest available to more fans it should move it to a more highly penetrated package.

In an email late Friday afternoon, the NFL Network said: “We are not in privity of contract with Comcast. This is now a legal matter and we will pursue it as such.”

The Comcast Colorado spokeswoman said the unit had not been contacted by the league. Comcast officials in Philadelphia were not aware of any legal action as of late Friday evening.

In May, a federal judge ruled that Comcast could migrate NFL Network to a sports tier, a decision the league is appealing. In the process, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said NFL Network lost some 8 million Comcast customers and now has fewer than 1 million subscribers with the nation’s largest distributor.

Meanwhile, the NFL has angered Comcast by trying to convince consumers to get rid of cable in favor of satellite and telco competition through Web sites, e-mails and public statements from NFL executives. In its breach of contract lawsuit filed Dec. 13 in New York State Supreme Court, Comcast said: “[The] NFL and its representatives have sought to punish Comcast economically for exercising its tiering right, including by seeking to diminish or destroy the value to Comcast of that right, and thus to coerce Comcast into abandoning the right.”

Comcast sent the league cease-and-desist letters that threatened legal action on Nov. 19 and Dec. 7 if the NFL did not end the campaign. Comcast is asking for compensation from damages and a permanent injunction to have the NFL discontinue its Web sites, emails and marketing campaign to drive customers to DirecTV.