The Flyers’ season has been put on ice. The 76ers are stuck on the sidelines. But even with professional sports suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, cable customers are still paying fees for sports channels that aren’t showing live games.
And consumers aren’t happy about it.
“There is no regional or national sporting events anywhere,” a reader wrote to The Inquirer through our Curious Philly portal, where reporters help answer your questions. “Xfinity needs to remove and refund this fee to its subscribers.”
Comcast’s Xfinity, like other cable companies, is near the end of a TV sports food chain that continues to pass costs on to consumers even when no games are played. Here’s how it works: Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable TV company, pays regional sports networks to carry their channels. Regional sports networks, such as NBC Sports Philadelphia, pay for the rights to broadcast games from teams, which pay millions of dollars to their players.
“The whole chain should just pause and think about all of the upheaval in the world and all of the financial worries that customers have," said New Jersey Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), who heads the state Legislature’s Consumer Affairs Committee. “They should not be imposing these prices on people at a time when everyone else is being asked to forgo mortgage, rent, etc."
Pay TV providers say that they’re open to giving consumers a break on their bill but that leagues and regional sports networks (RSNs) must cooperate. Until then, TV customers are stuck with the bill, paying for sports channels that lately air reruns of classic games or computer simulations of games that never happened.
The NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball suspended or delayed their seasons in March due to the coronavirus crisis.
But in Philadelphia, Xfinity customers still had to pay the $8.75-per-month “Regional Sports Fee" on their March bill. One of the fastest-growing fees on cable bills, the regional sports fee was $3 in 2016 and jumped an additional 6% this year from the $8.25 charged in 2019.
Comcast, with more than 20 million TV customers across the country, created the regional sports fee years ago to show customers how much of their bill goes to sports, one of the biggest drivers of programming costs for pay TV companies. By itemizing the fees from the base price, cable companies can shift blame for price hikes, consumer advocates have said. Now, the fee is drawing attention from customers who are stuck at home with no sports to watch.
In a statement, Comcast said: “Any rebates will be determined once the NBA, NHL, and MLB announce the course of action for their seasons, including the number of games that will be played, and of course we will pass those rebates or other adjustments along to our customers.”
A company spokesperson did not immediately say if Comcast has raised the issue of fees with the leagues or regional sports networks.
Verizon, with roughly four million Fios TV subscribers, told the New York Times that it is reviewing its contractual relationships with networks and leagues to possibly reduce what customers are paying.
“We’re looking at all options, however we need the broadcasters, RSNs and the leagues to cooperate," Erin McPherson, the head of consumer content and partnerships at Verizon, said in a statement.
NBC Sports Philadelphia, which typically broadcasts Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers games, has been recently reduced to reruns of historic games, sports documentaries, news, and commentary.
The network, owned by Comcast, has also aired computer simulations of games using the NBA2K video game. NBC Sports Philadelphia has even written game stories about the simulations on its website. “Here are a few observations on the virtual Sixers’ 72-65 victory,” the network wrote in covering the fake game.
“NBC Sports Philadelphia continues to offer compelling content to fans of Philadelphia area teams," a network spokesperson said. “We continue to work with our team and league partners as we await the return of live games.”
Spokespersons for the sports leagues did not return requests for comment.
The situation isn’t the same overseas. Europe’s Sky Sports is allowing customers to pause their subscriptions until the action resumes. The pay TV landscape is different in Europe, where it’s easier to buy sports channels separately instead of the traditional cable bundle.