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THE FINE PRINT

Why pay your cable company a ‘regional sports fee’ when there are no games on?

Anne and Ned Pride are fed up about paying their cable TV company $8.75 a month as a "regional sports fee" when there are no professional sports on TV.
Anne and Ned Pride are fed up about paying their cable TV company $8.75 a month as a "regional sports fee" when there are no professional sports on TV.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Anne Pride says she winces every time she checks her monthly bill from Comcast.

At $165 a month, cable TV and Internet service have become one of her largest household expenses, one she would dearly like to reduce.

Last month, as she reviewed her latest bill, Pride thought she had spotted an obvious reason to expect at least a modest reduction.

There, on the first page, was a $8.75 charge for “regional sports.” Yet it’s been almost two months since professional sports shut down due to the pandemic, and without games, there have been no live broadcasts, no “regional sports.”

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“So why am I still paying this?" she wondered.

Pride, 60, of Falmouth, contacted me, and I contacted Comcast.

The answer: Comcast is in no hurry to give back money for programming it did not provide or to stop charging for programming it knows it can’t deliver any time soon. All this against the backdrop of extreme financial stress for millions of its subscribers.

Comcast says no refunds will come while the professional sports leagues it carries are still undecided on what they will do with their suspended seasons.

Here’s Comcast’s statement: “Any rebates will be determined once the NBA, NHL, and MLB announce the course of action for their seasons, including the number of games that will be played, and of course we will pass those rebates or other adjustments along to our customers.”

But what about the games that were never broadcast these past two months?

I can only presume that Comcast hopes the NBA, NHL, and MLB will resume play and somehow complete their entire seasons and playoffs without canceling a single game.

That’s the only reason I can imagine that it has not refunded any money for games already missed.

But that seems doubtful, to say the least. The Boston Celtics had 18 regular-season games remaining when the league suspended play on March 11. Can the NBA restart and play all its games and playoffs in this environment? (A poll recently published in the Globe found that only 23 percent of respondents said they’d feel OK attending a sporting event when it’s permitted, although there’s been discussion of teams playing without crowds.)

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Can the NHL do the same? And can Major League Baseball teams play all of their 162 regular-season games, plus playoffs, before wintry weather makes play a practical impossibility in northern parks and stadiums?

If not, then Comcast owes its customers refunds.

It’s up to Comcast (and other cable providers) to renegotiate their deals with programmers like NESN and NBC Sports Boston to get back money they can pass on to their customers.

I know NESN and NBC Sports Boston are substituting “classic games” for live games, but that’s not what customers signed up for.

Pride said Comcast is missing out on an opportunity to gain good will with its subscribers, rather than give them another reason to “cut the cord.”

Last week, Comcast reported it had lost more than 400,000 cable TV customers in the first quarter, which is the company’s biggest source of revenue. And that was on top of the 670,000 customers it lost last year. (It still has about 20 million customers.)

Even so, it had $25 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year. I think it can find the cash.

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And it’s not like Comcast doesn’t need some good PR. A lot of subscribers are already angry they get roped into paying for sports that they don’t even watch because of how Comcast packages its “deals.” For them, continuing to pay during the pandemic only adds to the frustration, especially because the regional sports fee has steadily increased to $8.75 a month from $1 in five years, an amazing 775 percent increase.

During the pandemic, other corporations have done right by their customers. Auto insurers, faced with declining claims because fewer people are driving, are giving refunds to their clients, at least for April and May — the same two months covered by the “regional sports fee.”

Comcast dominates in Massachusetts, with about 70 percent of the market, or about 2 million customers. In about 130 cities and towns, including Brockton, Cambridge, New Bedford, Quincy, Salem, and Pride’s hometown of Falmouth, Comcast was the only option for cable in 2018, according to the the most recently available state data.

The next-largest provider is Verizon, with close to 20 percent of the market. It is still charging an even-higher regional sports fee of $8.89 per month. Asked why, Verizon said it was calling on programmers like NESN and NBC Sports Boston and the professional sports leagues “to cooperate with us to create a solution that provides relief to customers until live sports return to television.”

That sounds a lot like Comcast’s statement. And both miss the point. Consumers pay their money to Comcast and Verizon, not to NESN, NBC Sports Boston, or the professional sports leagues.

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Last week, Letitia James, the New York attorney general, demanded that the big cable and satellite television providers, including Comcast and Verizon, cut or eliminate fees for live sports programming, saying customers are being forced to pay for something they are not getting.

When asked, the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said it has received a few complaints from consumers about cable TV sports fees.

“We are reaching out to the cable companies about it,” a spokesperson said.

It can’t happen soon enough for Pride.

“Come on, Comcast,” she said. “Do the right thing.”

Setting the record straight

In a recent column about auto insurance, I made a mistake in describing the refunds being offered by the giant insurer GEICO in recognition of diminished driving during the pandemic. I said 15 percent for two months, but it is offering 15 percent for six or 12 months, depending on the period for which drivers renew their policies.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.