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Why sports teams booed the legalization of satellite dishes


A decision to allow the private use of satellite dishes in Canada signalled a whole new era of expanded choices for consumers.

But the change wasn’t welcomed by Canadian Football League teams that feared they could see fewer local fans showing up to games if they could watch outside the stadium.

Under the policy the federal government announced in March of 1983, bars and taverns were legally permitted to make use of satellite dishes. (The National/CBC Archives)

In 1983, Ottawa announced a shift in policy that would allow individuals to make use of the dishes at their homes. The same went for bars and taverns.

“Satellite manufacturers were delighted with the news from Ottawa,” the CBC’s Michael McIvor reported on March 2, 1983, the day the new policy was formally announced. 

“Business had been steady despite the possibility of prosecution that dangled over satellite-dish users. But with that aura of illegality now removed, dish sales have started to boom.”

Indeed, one such manufacturer told The National the main challenge would be in keeping up with demand that was sure to follow the change in policy.

Less incentive to go to a game

The CFL did not like seeing Ottawa approve the private use of satellite dishes. 0:43

That demand for dishes is exactly what worried some sports teams, as those same home devices would allow sports fans to access the television signal for games they could not access on regular television.

So, unlike in the past when local fans would have to buy tickets to see a live game, they could now choose to watch a broadcast that was supposed to be blacked out in their local TV market.

There were concerns that fan attendance would drop off at sports games if fans could use satellite dishes to watch those games elsewhere. (The National/CBC Archives)

As Paul Robson, the general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, told The National, it was easy to comprehend why some fans would make that choice.

“If you had a choice of driving 150 miles to sit in the rain to watch the Bombers play or to drive three blocks down to the local tavern and watch the game on television, I think the decision isn’t a decision you have to make,” said Robson.

According to McIvor’s report on The National, a semi-final game involving the Blue Bombers and the Calgary Stampeders the previous November had seen a drop in attendance. And it was believed that some fans had stayed home to watch the game with the help of then-illegal satellite dishes.

The day after Ottawa made its announcement, the Globe and Mail reported that an estimated 1.7 million Canadians were “beyond the reach of cable systems,” a group for which satellite dishes would have high appeal. And some of those people would presumably be sports fans, too.

According to a separate report by the newspaper, Communications Minister Francis Fox said the CFL and other organizations with similar concerns needed to “ensure satellite signals are scrambled” so that “no one sees the shows who shouldn’t.”

Read more at CBC.ca