Bar Owner Loved by Patrons, but Not by Broadcasting Service

Eugene Rooney is an owner of the Old Castle Pub and Restaurant in Manhattan, which attracts customers by showing sports broadcasts from Ireland.

The hard-core fans of Gaelic football were already there by noon last Saturday, hoisting pints and watching Crossmaglen play Garrycastle in the All-Ireland club final, on multiple screens at the Irish Pub on West 54th Street in Manhattan.

“This game is on network TV in Ireland now, and we’re getting the signal on a 90-second delay,” said Eugene Rooney, 64, who has been an owner of the bar since 1980.

Unlike other Irish bars where patrons must pay to watch this type of broadcast, Mr. Rooney’s establishment does not charge anything. The reason is a recent court decision that Mr. Rooney won, allowing him to avoid paying for a broadcast feed of games that are shown free in Ireland.

He uses technology to have sporting events streamed online to the bar from a television at a friend’s apartment in Dublin.

“As far as I know, I’m the first bar owner in New York to do this,” Mr. Rooney said. “You can see I don’t have a big crowd — I need a cover charge here like I need a hole in the head. People don’t want to pay to watch a game that they know is on free TV in Ireland.”

Mr. Rooney’s practice is lauded by his patrons, but not by Premium Sports, a San Francisco-based company that offers a broadcast package that includes overseas matches in sports like soccer, rugby and Gaelic football. Premium buys the United States broadcast rights for overseas games, which it then provides as closed-circuit feeds, mostly to bars.

Premium says it also has the right to charge patrons for games in its packages that are broadcast free overseas.

Two years ago, Mr. Rooney became something of a test case, fighting Premium in federal court in New York. He won a lawsuit, allowing him to continue to receive his friend’s feed free and avoid having to pay Premium.

Shane O’Rourke, a co-owner of Premium Sports, would not comment on legal aspects of the case, but said he planned to appeal.

“We’re not going to walk away and lie down,” he said. “If this case stood, you’re talking about billions of dollars of business being given away.”

The case is an important one for Irish bars in New York that do some of their best business on weekend mornings by offering live simulcasts of sports matches abroad.

Bar owners often pay considerably for the broadcasts, usually from providers who own the American rights to the games. Then they either set a door charge or sometimes the broadcast provider offers bar owners games free and sends its owns workers to collect a fee from customers.

This went on for years at Mr. Rooney’s bars – he is part-owner of the Old Castle bar on Seventh Avenue, which also shows Irish games – but two years ago, he grew tired of Premium Sports’ charging his customers for games available free in Ireland, he said.

Mr. Rooney set up his friend in Dublin and his bars in New York with $3,000 in equipment to stream television signals online. The technology is not perfect — the picture in bars is not crystal clear and periodically freezes.

In February 2010, before a rugby match between Ireland and England, Mr. Rooney told Premium not to bother trying to collect a door charge for a game that was offered free on Irish television. By the time Premium learned that Mr. Rooney was continuing the practice with another match later that month, the company filed a lawsuit against Mr. Rooney for theft of signal.

Premium pulled its service from his bars, and Mr. Rooney countersued for breach of contract. He hired a lawyer, Joel Cristoph, and an expert to testify that there was a delay between the game in his bar and the live broadcast in Ireland.

That delay figured strongly in the decision announced on March 1 by Judge Katherine Forrest of United States District Court in Manhattan. She ruled that because Mr. Rooney did not intercept a signal illegally, but instead used a broadcast sent to him from Dublin and then showed it at his bar with a delay of a minute or two, the bar version was technically a rebroadcast, and not an interception or a violation of communications law.

Mr. O’Rourke, who owns Premium Sports with his brother Michael O’Rourke, said that the decision was a blow, but added that other clients have not followed Mr. Rooney’s lead.

Of Mr. Rooney, he said: “He’s acting like the hero — and I’m sure he is, to people who don’t think you have to pay for anything — but if no one ever paid for these games, no one could afford to broadcast them anymore.”

Mr. Rooney — who immigrated in 1970 from County Mayo on a soccer scholarship to college, flunked out and began working in bars in New York — said he never guessed that the case would cost him $25,000 in legal fees to fight. But he has no regrets.

“I’m not rich, but I could afford it,” he said. “I’m not gloating, nor will I go and advertise that I have the games for free. But I have to say, it is satisfying.”

Source:  COREY KILGANNON, nytimes.com

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