Don't Be Tackled By SuperBowl Party Penalties!

Posted on January 31, 2011

Christmas and Easter present a creative platform for churches to reach their surrounding communities, but sandwiched between these holidays is a ubiquitous cultural event in February with just as much evangelistic drive. Now in its fifth decade, the National Football League’s Super Bowl has the largest economic impact of any regular human event with literally every demographic engaged in this annual national fervor.

Unlike previous years, churches are now preparing for viewing parties on Feb. 6th without fear of penalties and interference from the NFL for copyright infringement. The stage is set: two teams with quarterbacks in their 20’s (Rodgers is 27 and Roethlisberger is 28) hailing from two cities where game-time temps are often below 20o, will face off in Super Bowl XLV. Over the past several years churches faced chilling warnings and possible legal action if they hosted bowl parties.

Thanks to concessions by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL will not block religious organizations from hosting Super Bowl viewing parties. There are some important rules, however, to follow to side step possible copyright infringement:

1) Churches must show the game live on equipment they use in the course of ministry at their premises; recordings of the show are not permitted. (If you want help obtaining licensing for recording TV shows and film, check out PERMISSIONSplus).

2) Churches cannot charge admission for the party. The NFL has stated, however, that churches may take up a donation to defray the cost of the event.

3) It’s advisable for churches to call the event a “big game” party rather than a “Super Bowl” party, as both the “NFL” and “Super Bowl” are trademarked and protected intellectual property.

One church wrote me to say they’re calling it their “Souper Bowl” party and they’re asking participants to bring a couple of cans of soups as part of their food drive.

The road to legal church viewing events of the NFL’s copyrighted broadcast has been a harrowing and bumpy journey. Bipartisan action in the U.S. Senate in 2008 by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Arlen Specter (D-PA) brandished enough political ire to elicit a favorable response from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, allowing churches to legally host viewings of the 2009 Super Bowl event.

In a letter to Sen. Hatch a few weeks after the 2008 Super Bowl, Goodell said that the NFL would not object to “live showings, regardless of screen size, of the Super Bowl” by religious organizations (as long as admission is not charged and the showings are on premises that the church uses on a “routine and customary” basis), according to The Washington Post.

Sen. Specter had introduced a bill (S2591) Feb. 4, 2008 proposing to amend chapter 1 of title 17, United States Code, to provide an exemption from exclusive rights in copyright for certain nonprofit organizations to display live football games, and “for other purposes.”

It took only 13 months—this is lightning speed in the world of copyright deliberations—to render a positive solution. Here’s the stat sheet on how things unraveled:

  • Just prior to the 2007 Super Bowl, the NFL intercepted an Indiana congregation’s plans to host a Super Bowl party Feb. 4, leading many churches nationwide to abruptly drop their viewing parties and tackle the issue of potential copyright infringements.
  • The controversy blitzed churches when NFL officials spotted a promotion of Fall Creek Baptist Church’s “Super Bowl Bash” on their website in January 2007 and overnighted a letter to the pastor demanding the party be canceled. Pastor John D. Newland said his church would not break the law.
  • The NFL did not change their position for Super Bowl 2008, and warned that it would consider legal action if any church allowed a public viewing on TVs larger than 55 inches (this limitation is stated in the U.S. Copyright Law).
  • Goodell then reversed their stance after the 2008 Super Bowl.

The NFL’s action flagged churches and alerted them to the dangers of copyright infringement, especially posting material and notices on their websites. The Internet undoubtedly raises churches visibility, while also increasing their legal vulnerability.