Newark, N.J. Rutgers football fans hoping to watch their team in the Texas Bowl later this month may be better off going to Manhattan - the one in Kansas, that is.
The hometown of bowl opponent Kansas State is likely to have better coverage since the NFL Network, which has exclusive rights to televise the game, is not carried on two cable companies that serve more than 1 million of New Jersey's 2.5 million cable subscribers, not to mention most of New York City.
With No. 16 Rutgers suddenly at the flashpoint of the dispute between the NFL Network and cable operators Time Warner and Cablevision, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg sent a letter to the NFL on Wednesday urging the league to allow the Dec. 28 game to be shown on local television.
"Rutgers fans and the people of New Jersey do not deserve to be punished or used as a bargaining chip in that dispute," Lautenberg wrote.
Through spokesman Seth Palansky, the NFL Network said a solution will depend on an agreement between the network and the cable providers.
"As the senator recognizes, we have repeatedly offered to make not only this Rutgers game, but all NFL Network programming available broadly throughout New Jersey," Palansky said. "We regret that Time Warner and Cablevision have not yet agreed to carry NFL Network, but we will continue to work as hard as we can to resolve this commercial dispute as soon as possible."
That isn't likely to happen in the next three weeks. According to Time Warner cable spokesman Mark Harrad, the NFL Network wants cable providers to offer it as part of a basic cable package rather than as a premium service, an idea he said would force Time Warner to raise rates for all subscribers to cover the network's $140 million price tag.
"The NFL Network is asking for a price that would make it one of the top five networks in terms of audience," Harrad said, comparing it to networks such as Disney, ESPN and TNT. "But they're not a network that has shown broad ratings or broad appeal. That doesn't mean we don't want to offer it, because there are definitely customers who will want to pay more to get the NFL Network."
In his letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Network President Steve Bornstein, Lautenberg asked the league to apply the same policy for the Texas Bowl that it uses for its eight NFL telecasts this season. Those games are also broadcast locally by network affiliates.
Officials from Rutgers and the Big East are searching for a way that a local broadcaster such as MSG Network or Secaucus-based WOR Channel 9 could show the game.
That would require changing the NFL's broadcast agreement with the Texas Bowl, and Palansky said the league has no plans to alter that agreement.
Barring that, Rutgers fans could be forced to find bars or restaurants that have satellite feeds, since the NFL Network is carried on DirecTV and the Dish Network.
Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, carries the NFL Network on its digital service that is used by about 7 million of its 24 million subscribers. Comcast is the largest cable provider in New Jersey with about 1.3 million subscribers.
Oddly, Rutgers' men's basketball game against North Carolina will be broadcast on ESPN2 at the same time as the bowl game.
A notice on the Texas Bowl Web site didn't offer much hope for New Jerseyans, though it did suggest a call to action.
"NFL Network is the exclusive broadcaster of the Texas Bowl," it read. "The Texas Bowl can only be seen on NFL Network. If you don't have NFL Network, you won't get the Texas Bowl. Call your local cable provider and ask for NFL Network now."