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Here's why one Ohio senator wants to end paywalled college football in Ohio

Somebody wasn't happy about Ohio State football not being on regular ol' TV:

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Last weekend, Ohio State football played at Purdue. But unlike every other Ohio State football game since 1997, the broadcast wasn’t available on network or cable television. If you wanted to watch, you needed to subscribe to Peacock.

I decided not to pay the money. I do legitimately think that major conferences moving in a more streaming-focused direction is bad for consumers, but if I’m being totally honest, I mostly didn’t want to watch Ohio State potentially struggle on the road in West Lafayette, a setting that has historically given them a lot of problems. Ohio State ended up winning handily, so I guess I missed out.

But other Ohio State fans were really upset. One of those fans is Ohio Sen. Bill DeMora (D-Columbus), whose district includes Ohio State’s main campus.

DeMora announced that he plans to introduce legislation to “stop Ohio’s public colleges and universities from airing sporting events exclusively on streaming platforms.”

“I’ve gotten 98% positive feedback on this idea,” he told me. “I heard about this all weekend. Fans complained about the service, the broadcast quality, the picture, everything.”

“You and I both know that the Big Ten isn’t getting this huge TV deal without Ohio State. And because of that, Ohio State is able to dictate some concessions. Ohio State tells the Big Ten that they’re not going to play the Michigan game at night. They tell the Big Ten they’re not going to host Friday football games, because they don’t want to compete with Ohio high school football.”

If Ohio State has the leverage to secure those kinds of concessions from the Big Ten and media partners, wonders DeMora, why not on this?

Of course, while paywalled streaming broadcasts are new to Ohio State football, they’re not new for Ohio colleges in general.

MAC schools, like Ohio, Akron, Toledo and Bowling Green, have multiple broadcasts parked on ESPN+, and have for years, along with Youngstown State at the FCS level. Like everybody else in the country, many of Ohio State’s other athletic teams occasionally play behind streaming paywalls.

DeMora told me understands why other institutions have TV contracts that have streaming components, but still believes it would be appropriate for legislation that would impact all public schools in the state. “You can’t just carve out Ohio State. These are all taxpayer supported institutions.”

A compromise, according to DeMora, would be require streaming broadcasts to also allow linear distribution on local television. “Let NBC4 in Columbus pay to distribute the game here in Columbus. Let the local affiliates in Toledo or Athens broadcast the MAC game. It’s not rocket science—I’m sure it’s possible.”

I asked DeMora what he would say to somebody who accused him of grandstanding or pandering.

“This isn’t pandering. It’s a legitimate local economic issue. We’ve got bars out here that are asked to pay thousands of dollars to broadcast this game. I know of bars that decided not to show the Ohio State game, and others who pirated the stream, or bought log-ins from home. That’s screwing the little guy.”

He also got particularly animated about the idea of college students having to pay an additional fee. “I hope that these broadcast companies make it so college students do not have to pay anything extra to watch their classmates. It should be free in dorms, or they should give out unique codes, or something else. College is expensive enough as it is. If nothing else comes from this effort, that’s a win.”

The B1G+ service, which carries much of the Big Ten’s current overflow athletics content, is free for college students, or anybody else logging in from a university IP address. Peacock also offers a large discount for college students, one that would drop the cost of the service to $1.99/mo for 12 months.

Is anything actually going to come from this?

An Ohio State university spokesperson told me via email that “football media rights agreements are negotiated by the Big Ten on behalf of all conference members. We aren’t going to speculate or take a position on legislation that has yet to be introduced.” A Big Ten communications spokesperson also declined comment.

Ohio Republicans have a supermajority in the Ohio Senate, and also control the Governor’s mansion and the Ohio House. Any legislative effort led by a Democrat is going to be a longshot to go anywhere. “I know this is going to need Republican co-sponsors,” DeMora told me. Ohio lawmakers aren’t going to be at the Capitol this week, but DeMora told me that some of his colleagues have already given positive feedback, and that he expects to be able to find co-sponsors when the legislative session restarts.

DeMora isn’t the first lawmaker to express frustration with streaming services and college sports. Over the weekend, another lawmaker in North Dakota, one who also appears to be an Ohio State fan, took to social media to express his frustration:

I’ve seen state lawmakers in places like Kansas and West Virginia, (states where not everybody has access to high speed internet) complain about ESPN+ broadcasts, although to the best of my knowledge, nobody else as announced they intend to introduce legislation to address it.

Lawmakers would also occasionally try to pressure the NCAA over television assignments in the pre-Board Of Regents era. Ronald Smith’s ‘Play-By-Play’ details how politicians regularly threated action against the NCAA, or at least publicly lobbied, for more regionally televised games, more big games, or more televised HBCU matchups. A lawmaker listening to fans in his district complain about not being able to watch ol’ State U is not new.

Is this a good idea?

Let me deviate here from Sen. DeMora’s arguments here, and give you what I think.

There are generally two ways to make money in the media business. You can reach a large enough audience that you can support yourself via ad sales, or you can paywall part of your content and make money from subscriptions.

This publication makes about 94% of its annual revenue from paid subscriptions, and I am entirely comfortable asking people to pay to read it. It is almost impossible to write about what I cover and reach an audience of hundreds of thousands of people that I’d need to make a living just from ads. I need subscription revenue to pay my salary, health insurance, FOIA fees, and other expenses.

Here, I’ll even do it right now.

It’s also why intellectually, I don’t have a problem with ESPN+, FloSports, or anybody else that paywalls niche college sports content. Broadcasting events, especially at a high quality, takes money, and asking people to pay for it is the most sustainable way of earning enough to pay for that quality. We can quibble over the pricing or the quality or the customer service, but I don’t have a problem with the core concept of paywalling a broadcast.

Ohio State football, however, is not a niche broadcast property. It is perhaps the least niche event possible in all of college sports. You do not paywall Ohio State football out of economic necessity. You do it to prop up the value of the broadcast package. Good for the folks in Rosemont, but I get why consumers would be pissed.

I actually think two of DeMora’s proposed remedies here would be a net positive for consumers. Requiring streaming-only games to also be available locally via linear distribution will decrease the total value of a TV deal, but removes the economic hardship on bars and protects local consumers. Requiring schools to offer paywalled broadcasts to college students for free also seems reasonable. Most broadcasts already are free for students, and at many schools, athletic tickets are also free.

The bigger question, to me, is whether legislation would create more problems than it would solve.

One concern, of course, is that if Ohio lawmakers are able to force broadcast concessions for Ohio institutions, other lawmakers in other states will assuredly try to do the same. If Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Washington all have different requirements for public school athletic broadcasts, the Big Ten (and MAC, and others) will lose significant ability to schedule and negotiate future media rights deals. It also may very well mean this kind of legislation is unconstitutional.

There’s also a concern that expanding lawmaker oversight on university contracts would create additional precedent to meddle in other previously signed deals. If today the state decides there is a consumer protection interest in amending a broadcast agreement, could they decide next month that they should do the same for parking? What about textbook sales? Or student medical services?

In an era where higher education is increasingly politicized and subject to more ideological oversight, would lawmakers, particularly progressive ones, want to potentially expand the scope of how lawmakers control university operations?

As of right now, there’s no formal bill to examine or debate. It’s one lawmaker in one state after one broadcast. If Ohio State beats Penn State this weekend, maybe most people in the 614 area code will have forgotten all about Peacock and Purdue. If they lose, maybe Sen.DeMora’s constituents will push him to open a state investigation into Ryan Day’s playcalling. Who knows, man.

State lawmakers propose stuff all the time that never comes anywhere close to becoming a law. But if more and more blue blood programs find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having their games behind paywalls, I wouldn’t be surprised if DeMora isn’t the last politician to raise hell about it.

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