Free the Phillies! Free the Flyers! Free the Sixers!
Fat chance, you say? Maybe so. But that goal tops my wish list for this year's franchise-renewal negotiations between Philadelphia and its richest corporate citizen: loosening Comcast Corp.'s unfair and damaging grip on most of Philly's big-league sports scene.
Like the frog who thinks he's just basking in a warm bath, we Philadelphians have gotten poached without ever quite acknowledging it. We love our home teams - even when they're as maddeningly mediocre as the recent Flyers and Phillies, or as bafflingly managed as today's Sixers. We support them through thick and thin, and subsidize them via our taxes and services.
But Comcast pretty much owns them, thanks to its stake in the Flyers and its TV rights to the Phils, Flyers, and Sixers. Like feudal lords, the Lords of Xfinity exact tribute: barrels of cash from this city's fervent fans.
Sure, you can attend games without paying for cable. But if want to watch your favorite team on TV, you've got to subscribe to Xfinity or, if available, to Verizon FiOS, another high-price service that collects Comcast's sports tax. Most games aren't shown on broadcast television, and Comcast SportsNet has never been offered by Dish Network or DirecTV.
The satellite story is a long-running drama that mostly illustrates Comcast's skill at limiting competition. For years, it leaned on a loophole that allowed it to withhold SportsNet. Now it has apparently turned to leverage at the bargaining table, demanding a high price for every satellite customer in the region.
Today's biggest Comcast story is unfolding in Washington, where the company faces a flood of opposition to its $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Critics warn that combining the nation's two largest cable companies will just make a bad situation worse for cable and broadband customers.
But another story is just starting in Comcast's hometown, where the company controls franchises covering the whole city. If it's going to win extensions, what should it give up in return?
Which brings me back to Comcast's domination of local sports - the quintessential "must-have" content for any pay-TV service.
Professional sports play a unique role in any community. They connect people across all sorts of divides - racial, financial, cultural. That's especially obvious when a team enjoys a run of success, but even a team's foibles remind us of our connections.
I grew up in St. Louis, a city whose stark racial divides were on display much of last year, after the shooting of an unarmed teen in the suburb of Ferguson. Those conflicts brought to mind the long debate over why St. Louis was spared the large-scale riots that plagued Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City and other similar cities in 1968, after the slaying of Martin Luther King. My favorite, totally unprovable theory: In '68, like the year before, St. Louisans of all colors and classes were cheering a Cardinals team led by African American superstars such as Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.
What could Philadelphia demand? I have two suggestions:
One is requiring Comcast to offer Philadelphia SportsNet on an a la carte basis to the satellite companies, so they would only have to pay for subscribers who want the channel. The other is requiring Comcast to include SportsNet in its rock-bottom "Limited Basic" tier, which mostly offers broadcast, public-access, and educational channels.
These may not qualify as anyone else's priorities. Hannah Sassaman, of Philadelphia's Media Mobilizing Project, understandably ranks it below pushing Comcast toward offering affordable, high-speed Internet connections to the one in four city households that lack it.
But since the renewal may be "our one bite at the apple for the next 15 years," she says, she also wants SportsNet on the table.
"Access to watching our own sports teams - no matter what kind of TV service you're using, and at an affordable rate - is definitely something Philadelphia consumers want," she says.
What would Comcast get? Maybe a bit less revenue, though viewers would still be paying something. But it would also gain a large swath of gratitude, just for loosening its grip on something that really is - or should be - a public asset.