Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs fans can find blacked-out TV games online
TAMPA - Fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't have to pay for a satellite TV package or drive out of the team's 10-county coverage area to watch games blacked out on local television. All they have to do is Google it. Or tweet it. Better yet, they can ask friends on Facebook. Frustrated fans will likely go online again Sunday to hunt for another way to watch their team play because the Bucs' home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers won't be shown on local television. The 1 p.m. deadline for selling out the game and lifting the blackout passed today without all the tickets being sold.But videos of major sports matchups are scattered across the Internet, and fans say their online buddies usually know where to look. There is an issue of possible copyright infringement, but it hasn't stopped people from trying to get around blacked-out games. During the Bucs' regular-season opener against the Cleveland Browns, blacked out on local television, social media sites buzzed with tips about other ways to watch the game. Mike McCall, of Tampa, said he went on Facebook and read on a friend's page about a live video feed of the game. Curious, McCall checked out the recommended webpage, ATDHE.net, a portal which listed links to other NFL games, television shows and movies. Minutes later, McCall had the game streaming live on his computer. "I got hooked up," McCall, 62, said. "I enjoyed it. It seemed to be pretty good quality. It looked professional." It wasn't endorsed by the National Football League or the Bucs. According to league rules, home games need to sell out 72 hours before kickoff to be shown locally. The Bucs' opener was the first time in 12 years a regular-season home game wasn't shown on local television. Both preseason home games this year were also blacked out. About 41,500 people were at the season opener. Raymond James Stadium has more than 65,000 seats. The camera with the live feed was at a fixed perspective, McCall said, in an upper row on the 50-yard line. Images zoomed and panned, but didn't show sideline shots of coaches and players typical of network broadcasts, he said. If the video came from a ticket-buying fan, McCall said, "I would think that it would be pretty obvious and somebody would have approached them." It is highly unlikely someone could have sneaked a video camera into the stadium because security checks for recording equipment, Bucs spokesman Jonathan Grella said. Don Martelli, executive editor of technology blog Technorati, said a person in another market could point a webcam showing a football game, link the images to a computer and stream it online. NFL officials declined to discuss specifics of pirated broadcasts of its games. "We vigorously protect our product," NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said in an e-mail to The Tampa Tribune. "When we become aware of this through our Internet monitoring, we alert our legal department which takes action with a cease-and-desist letter and take-down notice." Martelli said it's hard for the NFL to police the Internet. If one link or website goes down, another is likely to take its place. People have also posted links to live NFL games on websites such as Justin TV, BlipTV and Ustream. Representatives from those companies could not be reached for comment. "Somewhere, someway, someone is going to get live video," Martelli said. "Unless the NFL gets an army of people to go to people's houses, they can't stop it." The league offers options on its website, NFL.com. Free replays are available for 72 hours to fans in areas that were blacked out, Masonson said. A replay of the Bucs' season opener was posted on NFL.com at midnight on Sunday. The replay is available until midnight on Wednesday. NFL.com also offers audio of games, Masonson said. Like the Bucs' radio broadcast on WDAE, the NFL's audio play-by-play is not blacked out. But when it comes to broadcasting what most fans want - live video - expensive gear isn't necessary, Martelli said. A small video camera and a laptop with a fast Internet connection are basic tools. The new iPhone can record high-definition video clips, which can then be posted on Facebook, he said. And, as it happens time and again, once a popular video or image hits the Internet, it can quickly go viral. "Content spreads much faster today than ever before, even a year ago, through Facebook videos and status updates," Martelli said. "There's 500 million people on Facebook. If you can't find someone with information on the content you're looking for, you're not searching smart enough." People with the cameras providing live images usually don't get paid. "So, why do this for free? Well, site traffic is a big reason," Martelli said. "Creating a bigger social network is another. Both of those reasons help expand your reach and influence online, which can pay dividends with online ad revenue." Streamed video of Bucs games are no different than a music fan recording a concert performance and posting it online, Thomas Ramsberger, a professor of sports law at Stetson University College of Law said. "It is a pirating of the broadcasting rights," Ramsberger said. The Bucs and the NFL can sue the person who made the recording if the video was used for commercial purposes or posted specifically to get around the blackout, Ramsberger said. "The Bucs have to find if the site is commercially exploiting the videos," he said. "If a website has advertising, it's commercial and an issue." The team and the NFL can then use "injunctive rights to make them stop and sue for damages depending on how many people saw it," Ramsberger said. Martelli has another viewpoint. "What I'm doing in my own home is my own business," he said. Tampa resident McCall, a retired engineer, said he understands how pirated game broadcasts would concern NFL officials. Then again, McCall said he has no problem watching NFL games streamed online. "If somebody makes it available publicly," McCall said, "it's open game."
Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920.