Blazer Blackout

Blazer Blackout

The fervor has spread from northern Oregon to the Rogue Valley. And it's only just beginning, says Medford resident and 30-year Portland Trail Blazers fan Steve Croft.

Croft, general manager of a local billboard company, recently became involved in a grass-roots organization called Blazer Fan Access Coalition, which is set to boycott everything Trail Blazers and Comcast SportsNet after the latter purchased the rights to televise games of the NBA franchise this season.

The reason behind the uproar is simple: More than 600,000 Oregonians and some in southern Washington are being denied television access to Oregon's lone major professional sports team because Comcast SportsNet Northwest is not available.

"I think it's ridiculous that we can't get those games," says Croft. "I mean, I've been making calls for months and nothing has happened. It's frustrating. Right now I just want to keep pushing and get others riled up over it."

Making things worse for local fans is the lack of Blazer presence on the radio as well.

Portland games were a staple on KTMT (580-AM) — also known as ESPN Radio — for several years before the station switched to a Hispanic format in 2005. The games were still broadcast locally through last season, but they are no longer being carried.

"First the radio and now this," says Croft. "I have DirectTV and I have no way of seeing the Blazers."

Comcast SportsNet Northwest was formed in May when Comcast SportsNet purchased rights to Trail Blazer contests. FoxSports Northwest had been the primary broadcaster of Blazer games, but the network balked at the $12- to $13-million deal the team offered for its annual price tag, according to the Portland Business Journal.

Comcast SportsNet Northwest, which purchased rights to Trail Blazer games for $130 million over 10 years, launched on Nov. 1 as the 11th regional sports network operated by the parent company. In all, the regional network was slated to televise 53 Portland Trail Blazer games and a variety of other sports, including Oregon Duck and Oregon State Beaver sports and National Hockey League contests, this season.

But Charter Cable, the major cable chain offered in Southern Oregon, and satellite services DirectTV and Dish Network, have yet to reach an agreement to provide Comcast SportsNet Northwest to its subscribers.

"We are absolutely negotiating across the board," says Comcast SportsNet spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick. "We are optimistic that we can strike deals with those providers and we are firmly committed to widespread distribution of our product, but it's a process that takes time."

Some Ashland residents have access to Comcast SportsNet Northwest through Ashland TV, formerly known as the Ashland Fiber Network. Ashland TV began carrying Comcast SportsNet Northwest two months ago on its expanded basic package.

Gary Knox, Ashland TV's operational manager, estimates 20 to 30 customers have switched over to Ashland TV because of the addition of the Comcast SportsNet channel.

"It's a big deal having it right now," says Knox. "It's sad that folks in Medford can't get it because the Blazers are winning a lot right now."

The deal with Ashland TV, which Comcast initiated, Knox says, took three to four days to hammer out. Knox would not disclose the terms of the agreement.

Many Southern Oregon fans with Charter Cable can view some Blazer games on KFBI (Ch. 3), which is scheduled to air 24 Portland contests this season.

But that number is less than half of those games scheduled for Comcast SportsNet Northwest.

"Nobody outside of the Willamette Valley and Portland can get those games," says Croft. "They've basically X'd out all the rural fans. And there's a lot of us."

Croft has been a Trail Blazer fan since 1975. He's witnessed great teams, including the 1977 NBA champion Portland team, and, like many other Blazer diehards, suffered through the "Jail Blazer" era in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the team was besieged by player arrests and other on- and off-the-court run-ins.

The current team, however, has been trouble free and is filled with young up-and-coming talent.

In June, Portland drafted 7-foot center Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick. Despite undergoing season-ending knee surgery before the season, the addition of Oden only added to the excitement for Blazer fans.

"It's frustrating because they have a bunch of good-character guys," says Croft, who estimates he has about 15 or 20 others in his newly formed group. "And they're playing well, too."

The Blazers have won a league-best 10 straight games heading into a Tuesday home contest against Seattle.

"Unfortunately, inherent in these new channel launches is finding the right sort of common ground to strike a deal with other carriers," said Mike Golub, the Blazers COO, in a statement released earlier this season. "It's in Comcast's best interest to get the channel as widely distributed as possible. It's in the cable providers and satellite providers' best interest to get it because their subscribers will want it. We remain confident these dynamics will yield a deal."

Croft found an outlet for his frustration through the BFAC.

Founded by longtime political activist Chuck Cushman, a Battleground, Wash., resident, the BFAC has just started shipping out e-mails and faxes to others interested in the boycott or to advertisers the boycott is directed toward.

In all, Cushman, 64, says he and his two-person staff have fielded hundreds of calls from angry fans and have sent out 21,000 e-mails and 14,000 faxes to businesses advertising with the Blazers and Comcast SportsNet.

"I'm a political activist," says Cushman, nicknamed Rent-A-Riot because of his past political activism. "I have a lot of connections that allow me to initiate this (boycott) with a solid foundation.

"What's happening is amazing. It's really taking off."

Cushman is also a longtime fan of the Trail Blazers who is "disgusted" with the current direction of their television rights.

"I love the Blazers," Cushman says. "This (boycott) is the last thing I want to be doing. They've done such a terrific job fixing the team. But they took the money from Comcast and ran. They could have made a deal with FoxSports Net to let people watch games while Comcast works out a deal. They just weren't thinking of their fans."

"I warned (Blazer executive) Mike Golub the day they came to that agreement with Comcast," Cushman adds. "I told him what Comcast is known for and that he just screwed over his fan base."

Cushman believes Paul Allen, the owner of the Trail Blazers and the majority shareholder of Charter Communications, is in a difficult position because of his involvement with both organizations.

"From a business point of view," Cushman says, "Paul Allen is in a tough spot. If Charter were to make a deal, then that would imply a monopoly. If Charter were to make a deal, then (Allen) is setting the market.

"I think it's interesting that this whole thing is making Charter customers mad, but I don't see how Paul Allen can get out of that box."

Recently, Comcast came to an agreement with Verizon FiOS TV and Scio Cablevision to carry the regional sports channel. But both companies cover only a small area.

Scio is a town with about 700 residents just south of Salem. Scio Cablevision, owned by Scio Mutual Telephone, serves around 100 square miles of rural area.

Verizon FiOS TV, on the other hand, reaches viewers in and near Washington County.

That does nothing for the multitudes who are left out, says Cushman.

"Verizon is such a small market, it almost doesn't count," says Cushman.

Fitzpatrick believes a deal will ultimately be struck.

"The fans out there that don't get our product have expressed frustration, and we share that," Fitzpatrick says. "I have spoken with Mr. Cushman. And whenever we are contacted by fans, we let them know that we appreciate the time they've taken to contact us.

"As I've said, this is a process that needs both parties to agree on."

Mike O'Herron, Charter Communication's general manager for Southern Oregon, says determining how Comcast SportsNet Northwest fits into Charter Cable packaging could be an issue.

"It's all about value and whether it will be on a sports tier (channel packages) or on some other level," O'Herron says. "If you put it on basic cable, the bill would probably be triple digits. In order for it to be affordable, you may have to put them on different sports tiers. Because once we agree on a deal, then we are obliged to carry it. That's why these things take time."

Cushman has a different opinion on why the negotiations are slow.

"Comcast is a hard-edged, no-nonsense, all-about-us business outfit," Cushman says. "The Blazers can't be that way.

"In some respect for the Blazers, it's like you dance with the gal that brung you. And they sold out to Comcast."

If negotiations don't soon take a turn for the better, Cushman has plans to try to push Congress toward hearings on the Comcast network.

"I sent out 80,000 e-mails to Congress before their (Christmas) break about other things," says Cushman. "So sending out 20,000 e-mails about this is no big deal to me."

Another possibility is getting the Federal Communications Commission involved to study the situation and possibly work out an arbitration hearing. The FCC, however, cannot force an arbitration. One of the sides involved in the negotiations must request such a hearing.

Croft has other ideas on pushing the issue.

"The bottom line," Croft says, "is we don't know what's going to happen here. My goal is to rally the troops in the Medford area and Southern Oregon.

"If it comes to it, my weapon is the billboard business. I can put something up if this thing drags on."

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail

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