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Thursday, September 20, 2012
Flem File: The Sports Fans Coalition

By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine

Sports Fans Coalition
"We want to empower fans, sport's 99 percent," says Brian Frederick, executive director of Sports Fans Coalition.
In July, the NFL announced sweeping changes to its TV blackout policy for the 2012 season. Under the new rule, owners can decide to allow local broadcasts of home games even if their stadium is only 85 percent full. With attendance down 4.5 percent since 2007, there were 16 blackouts last season, mostly in Cincinnati, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. In the end, by the Aug. 9 deadline, the Bucs, Raiders, Dolphins and Vikings elected to use a lower sellout threshold.

Earlier this week, OTL covered the brass tacks of the ongoing debate between fans and the NFL over blackouts. The changes proved significant in other ways, however. After decades of laughable attempts by fans to form any kind of meaningful and effective lobby inside the Beltway, Sports Fans Coalition played a significant role, behind the scenes, in pushing the NFL to loosen its blackout policy.

“What the SFC is doing could be the light-bulb moment,” says Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League. “The great awakening of sports fans as consumers.”

And, of course, in the spring, the Flem File was there in D.C. as it all unfolded.


WITH 11 MINUTES to make an historic meeting with the Federal Communications Commission, a slightly frantic Brian Frederick zips down the south side of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

It’s unseasonably warm, and the fragrant early bloom of cherry blossoms fills the rental car, promptly sending Frederick into a sneezing fit. Trying to read street signs in between convulsions, Frederick suddenly folds up his long legs against the dashboard and leans forward in the passenger seat to catch a glimpse of President Obama’s helicopter, Marine One, as it roars across the street just a few hundred feet above.

A good omen, perhaps?

Frederick, the executive director of Sports Fans Coalition, can use all the help he can get. Today, in just a few moments, in fact, Frederick is about to gain unprecedented access to FCC commissioner Robert McDowell to argue against the NFL’s TV blackout policy.

A few moments later, after his sneezing halts (and a possibly illegal left-hand turn) our seemingly magical rental car -- impervious to speed traps, one-way streets, the laws of physics and even parking tickets during a long day crisscrossing the Capitol in preparation for this meeting -- pulls into a space that appears to be just feet from the FCC.

Tag along with a D.C. lobbyist for a day, though, and the first thing you learn is nothing in Washington is ever as it appears. Kinda like the Redskins.

Somehow we failed to see the massive subterranean rail yard that now lies between our unpaid parking space and our destination. Undeterred, and with less than five minutes to go, the most important sports fan in the world races down a urine-soaked set of crumbling concrete stairs and takes off for the FCC.

At the moment Frederick is a one-man Occupy Sports movement, albeit one dressed in a sharp gray suit and square-toed black leather shoes.

“I love the idea of Occupy Sports; it sums up exactly what we’re trying to do,” Frederick says. “We want to empower fans, sport’s 99 percent. We want them to understand there are dozens of owners and hundreds of athletes, but there are millions of fans with so much untapped power. They just haven’t found a voice.”

Maybe today, that will all change.

Sports Fans Coalition
Frederick meets with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
MOUNTAINS AND CLOUDS, the seven-story, 36-ton black metal sculpture by the late Alexander Calder is the focal point of the atrium inside the Hart Senate Office Building. The masterpiece of modern art is meant to instill both awe and hope in visitors here to speak with their representatives. And that’s exactly what Frederick, boyish even at 37, is feeling just before noon as he pushes through the heavy glass doors that lead into the office of Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Starting in 2010, Brown and four other senators have been calling on the NFL and the FCC to end the “failed” 39-year-old policy of blacking out local broadcasts of games that aren’t sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff.

Even though just 8 percent of games have been blacked out since 2000, the NFL says the rule is still a necessary incentive to keep stadiums full and prevent more games from migrating to pay TV. Brown has responded that taxpayers in Cincinnati, where six of the 2011 Bengals' eight homes games were blacked out, put more money into Paul Brown Stadium than any other community in the country.

“And this is the payback for taxpayers?” he says. “They still can’t watch the games?”

In November, Sports Fans Coalition and several other Washington-based policy groups, including League of Fans, a sports-reform think tank created by Ralph Nader, filed a petition asking the FCC to rescind the rule.

In January, the FCC began taking public comments. The main reason why Brown has now agreed to meet with Frederick for a few minutes is that in just over a month, the SFC helped move the needle on the topic by getting more than 4,000 fans to weigh in against the rule.

Brown enters the room looking a bit like a sleepwalker -- laser-focused eyes with disheveled, bed-head hair -- and blurts “I’ve got about five minutes until a vote.” Then he puts his chin in his hand and listens intently as Frederick updates him on a new study from nine independent economists that states there is no correlation between blackouts and ticket sales.

“I’m very impressed. This has shown that fans can engage in these issues in a way that really matters,” he says heading back to the door. “Fans have helped get the attention of the FCC in a way that I alone could not have gotten.”

His final words to Frederick: “Stay in touch and stay on 'em.”

Back outside the office, Frederick exhales. Leaning against the white marble hallway walls, he tries to gauge how the meeting went. To a D.C. outsider, not great. But to those in the know, to Beltway veterans who understand the power, connections and piles of contribution money it normally takes to get five minutes (actually, it was 4:22) of quality face time with a senator, Frederick has just scored a touchdown for fans.


WALKING DOWN Second Street with the Capitol dome over his right shoulder, Frederick heads to a Belgian bistro in the Eastern Market. While the meeting with the FCC is foremost on his mind, the main topic over a lunch of salads, waffles and wheat beer is the long, futile history of the fan lobby in sports.

Founded in the early 1970s, Nader’s League of Fans is fairly typical. Now in its third incarnation, LOF is mostly a watchdog group based on a manifesto, with an introduction alone that spans 28 pages. (Frederick’s mission statement is seven paragraphs and includes a reference to "This Is Spinal Tap." The guy knows his target audience.)

Bengals fans
Bengals fans created the protest site whodeyrevolution.com.
There are a few successful fan-protest websites, chief among them whodeyrevolution.com, run by Cincinnati Bengals fans with actual marketing backgrounds who, in classic Project Mayhem Fight Club style, once snuck 1,000 urinal cakes with owner Mike Brown’s face on them into Paul Brown stadium.

(These guys don’t mess around: When I had breakfast with them in the spring, the first thing they did, even before I could get a damn sip of coffee, was slap down a photocopy of my 2005 Carson Palmer cover story that talked about positive changes within the franchise’s front office.)

WhoDeyRevolution continues to make waves and give disgruntled fans a voice in Cincinnati with smart, funny, fact-based opinions expressed through brilliant guerilla-marketing tactics via the Internet and social media. They are quickly becoming a blueprint for fan-protest sites of the future.

But, in classic fan-lobby form, when I suggest they franchise their site to other cities with terrible NFL franchises -- like, say, Cleveland -- they both nearly choked on their Goetta. They have no interest in helping the Browns.

Most other grassroots movements have gone the way of the 2007 walkout staged by fans of the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. Everything was going according to plan until the Pirates scored six runs in the second inning against the Nationals. Instead of a mass exodus, less than 100 fans actually left, most of them to a chorus of boos from temporarily sated fans.

The biggest obstacle with fan groups is almost always the fans themselves -- a group that doesn’t seem to understand, or care, about the power they wield as the source of all this wealth in sports. They come to the games for an escape from real-world issues like politics and fiscal responsibility, and in doing so have intertwined loyalty and support for the team on the field with blind faith and blank checks for the owners.

It’s a sports version of Stockholm syndrome. Fans are also inherently, and passionately, regional. They’re programmed not to think globally or even nationally. And you had better believe leagues, owners and the NCAA prey on this to receive the kind of absurd concessions other private businesses wouldn’t dare dream of.

“Fans have to see themselves as an organized power, and that’s where the problem comes, the old cliché of trying to herd cats,” says Nader, a consumer-advocate pioneer and four-time presidential candidate.

“As far as power grabs, greed, arrogance and accountability, sports is right up there with the worst of what I’ve seen in other industries. The difference is, we brought the auto industry to heel, we brought the coal industry to heel. No one’s ever brought the corporate sports industry to heel.”

Frederick and SFC hope to be the first. Formed in 2009 by David Goodfriend, a former deputy staff secretary for President Bill Clinton, and Brad Blakeman, the deputy assistant to George W. Bush, the group floundered for more than a year under suspicions that it was little more than a mouthpiece for satellite TV companies. The SFC had 400 members in October 2010 when Frederick came on as executive director as the group’s one and only full-time employee.

Raised in Lawrence, Kan., where his dad, Bob, was the highly respected athletic director at KU for 14 years, Frederick is a die-hard Chiefs fan armed with a doctorate in communications from Colorado. (He’s also a professor in Georgetown’s Sports Industry Management program.)

Sports Fan Coalition
Frederick prepares to present his case to the FCC commish.
Frederick’s success comes from his unique ability to straddle both worlds as an authentic, passionate fan who is also informed, scholarly and cunning enough to take on the power brokers in sports, politics and media. Every spare moment he had during our day running all over D.C., Frederick was on his cellphone trying to arrange travel and score tickets to the first round of the NCAA tourney. (His brother is on the coaching staff at Vanderbilt.)

At the time, Frederick was mostly running SFC from the kitchen table of his condo near Dupont Circle, where he battles the NFL’s multimillion-dollar war chest and powerhouse lobbyists like Covington & Burling. The only tools at his disposal? Hard work, the power of being on the right side of issues and the D.C. underdog mantra that “connections still mean more than the money in Washington.”

Naïve, yes, but so far it’s produced results. He has helped grow SFC membership to more than 50,000 while expanding the group’s list of populist causes to include opposing public financing for stadiums, promoting a playoff in college football and protesting work stoppages in the NBA, NFL and now the NHL.

Frederick’s dream scenario for the SFC is something akin to the NRA, a major political force with millions of members capable of holding owners and leagues accountable.

“Some people in this town say sports aren’t important,” Frederick says while walking from lunch to the Metro. “Look, we’re not lobbying for human rights or against genocide, but we spend billions on sports, and that alone makes them a way to ask and explore serious questions about our culture.”


RISING OUT of the subway station near K Street, Frederick crosses Farragut Square, where hordes of lobbyists eat late picnic lunches and warm themselves like lizards in the sun.

With the FCC looming, Frederick stops off for a quick pep talk from his mentor, Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League. Topics of discussion include their recent testimony before Congress against rental-car fees for stadium funding; meeting Washington mayor Vincent Gray for lunch to argue against a new taxpayer-supported practice facility for the Redskins; and lawmakers in Minneapolis who are trying to circumvent a referendum to allocate funds for the Vikings' new stadium.

“Brian is empowering an entire group of consumers that up until now has had no voice,” Greenberg says. “There is something wrong with an industry where fans and taxpayers contribute millions, if not billions, and the people taking that money don’t feel the least bit obligated to do right by that group. That paradigm has to change. The setup is absurd. But there has never been another point of view, until now, until Brian.”


Sports Fan 3
FCC commissioner McDowell proves a sympathetic audience.
THE DOORWAY THAT LEADS to the commissioner’s corner office on the top floor of the FCC headquarters, the one sporting incredible views of both the Washington Monument and the Potomac River, is decorated with a large blue poster that says: WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER.

Frederick’s underdog status becomes even more clear after meeting McDowell. The FCC commissioner is the die-hard Republican credited with inventing the slogan: "Annoy the Media, Re-Elect Bush." And on his coffee table, surrounding a book on the Vatican written by his father, are four Duke Blue Devils drink coasters.

Frederick’s face turns ashen. He leans left, for starters, and he’s a North Carolina grad to boot. When he mentions his latest study of blackouts, McDowell scoffs: “There’s an economist for everything, right?”

Frederick’s voice cracks. He’s still stumbling through the opening part of his spiel when something amazing happens. McDowell, who has been taking notes with a Bic pen on a spiral notebook, puts up his hand: Stop.

Frederick looks up warily in midsentence, and when he does, McDowell invites him to leave the saggy suede couch and sit beside him in the more regal, high-back upholstered chairs. The Big Boy Chair. A seat no fan has ever occupied. In one grand motion, the SFC has just joined the big time.

The next day, in fact, Roger Goodell and the $10 billion NFL will sit in the exact same place to plead their case. But this time, on this issue, the fans go first, and they will be a tough act to follow.

“From a good government perspective, I find this all very refreshing to see fans become part of the process,” McDowell says. “This doesn’t get elevated to this level without the fan's voice being heard. And now that it has, I say, let’s start the debate and take a fresh look at this thing.”

With that, Frederick slowly folds his leather folder shut, puts his notes away and begins to hit his stride. The NFL is worried that lifting the blackout will drive more people to pay TV? Well, the league’s own network is on pay TV because more than 90 percent of viewers are already there.

Frederick reminds McDowell that taxpayers have funded 31 of 32 NFL stadiums. He says the rule is redundant, that it can just as easily be regulated by the free market. What about elderly and disabled fans? Things are going so well that at one point McDowell asks Frederick what questions he should ask Goodell.

For the rest of the meeting, the only time McDowell speaks in favor of blackouts is when he jokes about imposing just one -- on the Redskins.

Afterward, in the wood-paneled elevator heading back down to the street, Frederick has his hand across his forehead. “Wow ... wow ... wow,” he repeats with a look somewhere between elation and disbelief.

Frederick’s cellphone begins to ring with inquiries about the meeting, and each time he yells into it: “We’ve got the NFL at DefCon 1!”

Not exactly. The new policy is highly punitive, requiring teams that lower their sellout threshold to hand over a larger percentage of revenues to the visiting team. In a June letter to Goodell, Brown and other members of Congress called the changes a “step in the right direction,” but asked the NFL to go further in abolishing its “anti-fan blackout policy.” The NFL has yet to respond publicly.

Undeterred, Frederick insists, “We pressured them for two years, and the NFL finally blinked. We still have a ways to go, but I think the NFL has very much begun to recognize us and view us, the fan voice, as a threat.”


LATER, THERE WILL BE a celebratory dinner with an SFC board member at a nice restaurant off Pennsylvania Avenue, but Frederick’s day officially ends across town at the Iron Horse Taproom in Chinatown.

His tie loosened and his posture relaxed, Frederick nurses a creamy-headed custom stout. The pub’s owner comes by to offer a reminder that tonight elephants from the circus will be making their promotional walk through the Capitol. The five-ton mammals will be coming so close to the bar that some patrons are moving their cars off the street so they won’t get trampled.

Hearing this, Frederick chuckles, takes a long gulp of his brew and settles back down onto his stool.

The rental car is safe, for the moment, and he’s battled enough colossal, unruly beasts in the nation’s capital for one day.