DirecTV allows some NFL refunds after anthem controversy

DirecTV is allowing at least some customers to cancel subscriptions to its Sunday Ticket package of NFL games and obtain refunds, if they cite players' national anthem protests as the reason for discontinuing service, customer service representatives said Tuesday.

Under Sunday Ticket's regular policy, refunds are not to be given once the season is underway. But the representatives said they are making exceptions this season -- which began in September -- because of the controversy over the protests, in which players kneel or link arms during the national anthem.

Spokesmen for DirecTV-parent AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) and the National Football League declined to comment.

The shift is the latest twist in a controversy that has divided the nation after President Donald Trump blasted players who took a knee during the anthem and said they should be fired. He has called on people to walk out of stadiums when players are kneeling, and has continued to express his displeasure over the protests.

"For people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem, I think is disgraceful," Mr. Trump said on Tuesday.

Several teams have issued statements defending the rights of their players to express their opinion or have otherwise shown solidarity with them, as has the league.

Not only are the political stakes high but the business ones are too. Football draws the biggest TV audiences of American sports and is important to the bottom line of a host of major media companies. Sunday Ticket is one of the NFL's premier franchises, earning it $1.5 billion a year in licensing revenue, and is a major customer draw for DirecTV.

The controversy comes as the league is trying to rebound in the ratings. Viewership was down last year and the trend is continuing. Network executives and league officials attributed last year's declines in part to viewing competition from the presidential election, distaste with the pace and quality of games, and also the anthem protests.

DirecTV service representatives contacted by The Wall Street Journal had different understandings of the policy. One said refunds to those concerned about the anthem protests are only allowed for people with certain offers or plans. One representative said full refunds were available for subscribers complaining about anthem protests. Another said such people could only get pro-rated refunds for the remainder of the season. Yet other representatives said refunds still aren't allowed for any reason and that the policy hadn't changed.

Mark Hoffman, a longtime subscriber to Sunday Ticket, which gives sports fans the ability to watch every Sunday game, said in an interview he was able to cancel his subscription on Monday. The package costs around $280 per-season.

"I honestly didn't think I'd get a refund," Mr. Hoffman said. "I know their guidelines, I just wanted to make a point." Mr. Hoffman, a former business editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said he made his case successfully to a customer service representative after sitting through a recording saying cancellations weren't an option.

The protests, which started last season when quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem to protest treatment of minorities by police, were a focal point of this past weekend's games.

Aside from DirecTV, the NFL-owned channel RedZone, which provides live action and scoring from every game on Sundays, is also experiencing some cancellations due to the protests.

Charles Plavk, a veteran who resides in Wisconsin, cancelled his subscription to the channel from Charter Communications' Spectrum Cable. He said when he called, the customer service representative said, "everybody's calling about that today." Unlike Sunday Ticket, which is only available through DirecTV, RedZone is available through a number of cable providers and streaming outlets.

A Charter spokeswoman declined to comment.

AT&T, owner of DirecTV, is trying to push toward completion of its pending $85 billion merger with Time Warner Inc., currently under review by the government.

During this past Sunday, CBS (NYSE:CBS) ratings were up slightly compared to the same with a year ago while NBC and Fox were down. ESPN's "Monday Night Football," which featured the popular Dallas Cowboys, was up substantially over last year, when a presidential debate ate into the football audience.