Last Sunday evening, all across the country, churches had plans to host Super Bowl parties. It wasn’t anything new. They had been doing it for years.
Traditionally, many churches invite their congregations, and anyone else who wishes to attend, over for snacks, football, and perhaps a small prayer service during half time. The prayer service is probably more appropriate for church than watching the likes of Janet Jackson bare her breast on national TV.
A few years ago, when I attended church regularly, the First Christian Church in Edinburgh had a small Super Bowl party. It wasn’t advertised and it was in the days when high-definition televisions were just starting to become popular. We watched it on a 42-inch wide-screen TV, but not in high definition.
But the long-standing traditions of many churches were dashed last week as the NFL decided to crack down on mass showings of the Super Bowl. First of all, churches who advertised on their Web sites, in newspapers, or on their bulletin boards that they were having a Super Bowl party were in violation of the NFL’s copyright on the term Super Bowl. To be legitimate, they would have had to advertise using terms such as “the big game,” or “super football Sunday.”
But even the change in terminology that some churches agreed to abide by didn’t satisfy the NFL. They also said it was a violation to show the game on a TV that was larger than 55 inches. That’s a nice large screen for the living room, but not so much for church auditoriums. And only one set is allowed per venue.
When I first read about the prohibition last week, my first reaction was surprise and anger that the corporate lawyers of the NFL were being so greedy and unyielding. How could it possibly result in money out of the pockets of the NFL to allow a church to show the game on a big projection TV for their congregation?
A spokesman for the NFL explained that the size of the TV audience is determined by the Neilson Ratings. When people gather in large numbers to watch it on one TV instead of watching it at home on many TVs, it somehow affects the ratings and, therefore, the amount that can be charged for commercials.
Although the explanation makes some modicum of sense, it’s highly unlikely that the ad revenue of the Super Bowl is going to be affected by church groups watching it together.
Then I realized that if I wanted to rent out a theater or other large building and show the Super Bowl on the big screen while only charging donations, I would definitely be in violation of the NFL’s copyright. And some churches were planning to do just that. The bigger churches have massive multimedia systems that rival that of some theaters. The church in Indianapolis that first brought on the ire of the NFL was planning to show the game on a 12-foot screen.
If private individuals and companies are not allowed to violate copyrights, then churches shouldn’t be allowed to either. Churches have been getting a pass on a lot of things that for-profit companies would be flagged for. One of the big ones is that they don’t have to pay taxes.
But, although I still believe the NFL, like so many other copyright owners do, overreacted to an inconsequential violation of copyright, it was within its rights, and it’s good that the NFL is not treating churches with kid gloves on this issue.