- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A former top lobbyist for a satellite television company is seeking to mobilize sports fans to further the interests of the industry he once served.

David Goodfriend, a former lobbyist for Dish Network, is forming a coalition that claims to give sports fans a voice on Capitol Hill. But the initial funding would come from satellite television and other companies that compete with the rival cable industry.

The group’s goals, he said, include lobbying for such fan-friendly items as cheaper tickets in publicly financed stadiums, the elimination of television blackouts for sports and the creation of a college football playoff.

But the group also would push for enforcement of rules governing the carriage of sports networks that would benefit satellite television and other companies at the expense of competing cable providers.

Cable companies are absent from a list of the coalition’s target contributors, which includes Dish Network, DirecTV, RCN, Verizon and AT&T. Early plans for the coalition call for an initial annual budget of $410,000, with $150,000 set aside for federal lobbying, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.

“It seems like a classic front group,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a lobbyist watchdog group. “Their whole point is to get away with something and fool people into making them think they care about sports. It’s the product of lobbyists.”

Mr. Goodfriend said corporate contributors would not have any power over the coalition’s agenda and that over time the group would be funded entirely from individual memberships and nonprofit organizations. The coalition’s direction would be determined by a board of directors guided by the wishes of members and the main board of directors would be separate from the corporate advisory board, he said.

“We’re about to take on some of the most powerful interests in America, so we thought we should have some big dogs of our own in our corner,” Mr. Goodfriend said. “But the catch is we’re not offering anybody control other than individual members who sign up. We don’t know if this is going to get off the ground or not, but if it does, it’s going to be on the sports fans’ terms.”

One the coalition’s major stated objectives is to ensure that fans can view local sporting events on television or the Internet, regardless of their service provider. On that issue, cable companies have been at odds with satellite providers and other competitors who want to continue carrying cable-owned sports networks such as Comcast SportsNet, SportsNet New York and MSG.

The Federal Communications Commission in 2007 renewed a law requiring cable firms to allow their local sports networks to be carried by competing carriers. Cablevision and Comcast in September filed a joint motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking to change the rule. Meanwhile, several companies, including Verizon, have filed suit against cable companies to enforce it.

“If your stadium was built with your tax dollars, you should be able to watch the games on TV,” Mr. Goodfriend said. “That’s fundamental. Public dollars in, public benefit out. That’s the way it should work. And that’s just one of several issues the FCC could weigh in on.”

A spokesman for DirecTV declined to comment. Dish Network, AT&T and Verizon did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, also declined to comment.

Mr. Goodfriend said he decided to form the coalition after a congressional staffer inquired about finding an organization to testify on behalf of sports fans.

“I realized there isn’t one here in Washington, but there ought to be,” he said.

Persons invited to serve on the coalition’s main board of directors include Brad Blakeman, a Republican political consultant; Ed Garvey, a lawyer and former executive director of the NFL Players Association; Dave Zirin, the sports editor of the Nation magazine; Gigi Sohn, executive director of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit digital advocacy group; Mark Walsh, the chief executive officer of marketing consultant GeniusRocket.com; and Burt Emmer, a lawyer and Mr. Goodfriend’s father-in-law.

Board members either did not respond to requests for comment or referred all questions to Mr. Goodfriend.

Mr. Goodfriend is holding talks with companies but has not secured any corporate funds. A slide show presentation from the organization shows that he had tentative plans to begin collecting individual memberships by the end of this year, then raise money through branded merchandise, conferences and other products in early 2010. The group would begin meeting with FCC officials and lawmakers by the end of 2009, with the hope of seeing the introduction of new legislation and hearings by the middle of next year.

“I’m hoping enough individuals sign up that we won’t need corporate contributions after a while,” Mr. Goodfriend said. “In an ideal world, this thing is entirely self-funded. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We have to start somewhere.”

But in the early going, the coalition would be funded exclusively with corporate money, leading watchdogs to question whether the group will avoid being influenced.

“The reason a corporation would sign on is because it likes the message,” Ms. Sloan said. “They would have to be sold on it.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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