An Aug. 27 Metro article about televising Washington Nationals games omitted cable company RCN, which is carrying approximately 135 Nationals games this season to its 185,000 customers in the D.C. region. (Published 8/31/2005)
Buses packed with baseball fans are scheduled to roll shortly after noon today from seven popular Washington area sports bars to the Nationals game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Each fan will receive a free ticket and a white T-shirt with a slogan -- "Hey Comcast! Hey Angelos! You can. You won't. We lose!" At the game, they'll be instructed to wave posters and bumper stickers advertising a Web site -- www.iwantmynatstv.com.
If all goes as planned, 500 fans will turn out to demand that Comcast cable start carrying the baseball games, organizers said.
Comcast and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who also owns the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, are fighting in court over who controls the region's cable TV rights for Nationals games. Until the dispute is settled, most Nationals games can be seen only on DirecTV, a satellite company, and the Washington UPN affiliate, WDCA (Channel 20).
The fans are fighting back, said Linda Farmer, general manager of Ramparts Restaurant and Sportsbar in Alexandria, which organized the effort. What began as a bar conversation, she said, blossomed into a campaign that has raised $35,000 to buy tickets, create a Web site and buy ads in newspapers. Some patrons, she said, contributed several thousand dollars apiece.
But cable industry observers say the campaign gives off more than a whiff of professionalism.
"This ad campaign appears more targeted at smearing Comcast and the cable industry than at getting Nationals games on television," said David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president.
"We have found it curious that there is an alleged coalition of bar owners, most of whom have DirecTV in their bars, who allegedly are serving as the grass-roots voice."
Some cable officials wonder whether the campaign is being engineered by someone with another motive, a tactic known in advertising circles as "astroturfing."
"This is somebody trying to create false grass roots," said Steve Effros, president of Effros Communications, a consultant and analyst in the cable industry.
"Certainly, the telephone companies have been known to do that in the past."
Although the names of 43 establishments are posted as sponsors on the campaign's Web site, the cable industry has raised questions about the amount of money contributed, the nature of the rhetoric and the involvement of Jeff Mazzella.
Cable industry sources flagged the involvement of Mazzella, who is executive director of the Alexandria-based Center for Individual Freedom, a nonprofit group that emphasizes individual rights.
In his professional life, Mazzella has worked with Washington-based DCI Group on developing corporate and public-interest grass-roots campaigns involving the food and pharmaceutical industries. DCI does public relations, grass-roots organizing, consulting and direct lobbying. One of its major clients is AT&T, according to its Web site.
And the Center for Individual Freedom's Web site shows support for major telecommunications firms such as SBC Communications and AT&T, both of which are rivals of Comcast and the rest of the cable industry.
Mazzella's ties to the campaign were first reported by Satellite Business News, an industry newsletter.
AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones said yesterday that her company had no connection to the grass-roots campaign.
Farmer defended the campaign, saying that supporters spread word of the effort last month by starting the Web site and enlisting other bars and restaurants across the region.
Although most of the bar owners already paid $30 to $50 a month to get Nationals games on DirecTV, Farmer made an attractive offer. She told bar owners she would arrange for them to receive posters, banners, table displays, T-shirts -- and even free tickets.
Stratton Liapis, owner of Bullfeathers of Capitol Hill, signed up.
"She said, 'Let's get on the bandwagon about this Comcast thing,' " Liapis said, referring to Farmer. "I said, 'Absolutely,' because I'm a Comcast customer and they won't show the games."
Art Dougherty, co-owner of Crystal City Sports Pub in Arlington, said he had never seen another such organized effort by bars in his 11 years in the business.
"I agreed with what they were saying," Dougherty said. "This is our team, D.C.'s team. Everyone should be able to see it."
At his bar, which gets Nationals games on DirecTV, a large banner featuring the anti-Comcast and anti-Angelos message hangs on the facade and two smaller posters are on the mirror behind the bar. Farmer said she got a friend to print T-shirts and ordered hundreds of glossy pub table displays and posters from a printing company.
With the help of Ramparts owner Mike Anderson and Mazzella, a patron, Farmer said she placed advertisements for the campaign in the Washington City Paper and Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication.
She said she bought nearly 500 tickets to today's game and distributed them to seven bars that promised to bring fans to the game. Farmer said Mazzella helped with setting up the Web site, recruiting supporting bars, and producing and distributing materials.
"My organization is a constitutional advocacy organization," Mazzella said. "Yeah, we do public affairs campaigns, but it has no affiliation with this campaign at all."
Since starting the effort, Ramparts has become a DirecTV subscriber, paying a monthly fee of $35. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the Nationals game against Cincinnati was being shown on just one of the bar's 17 televisions. Alan Emery, who owns Uncle Jed's Roadhouse in Bethesda, said he joined the campaign because he is a baseball fan who believes that the games should be available on cable, even though his bar has DirecTV.
After learning of Mazzella's history, Emery looked at one of the glossy table displays that Mazzella had given him.
"Man," Emery said, shaking his head, a Nationals game on the flat-screen TV behind him, "I hope I'm not being used."