As Grizzly and Bobcat football fans took their fight with ESPN to every corner they could think of -- and in every method they could dream up -- there was a sign Monday that the network might be reconsidering its stance against local TV broadcasts of Montana and Montana State's FCS playoff games Saturday.
One of the fans, Kristal Glass of Las Vegas, said she received an email from the president of Max Media of Montana, which owns stations that typically carry Montana State games during the regular season.
In it, Linda Gray informed Glass that Gray's contact at ESPN told her Monday, "ESPN is discussing the clearance on the local stations in Montana ‘at the highest level.' "
ESPN paid $550 million for the broadcast rights to all NCAA championship events except men's basketball. However, it is offering coverage of most early round FCS games only on its Internet streaming service, ESPN3.
Most Montanans do not have access to it because their Internet service providers do not pay ESPN to carry it.
The resulting "blackout," as some fans in Montana have taken to calling it, has provoked a grassroots campaign to get ESPN to allow local stations to carry its feeds of Saturday's playoff games between Montana and Central Arkansas, and Montana State vs. New Hampshire.
The news that ESPN was discussing the issue was about the only thing Gray didn't post at an events page on Facebook that has galvanized Grizzly and Bobcat supporters.
"People might think it's in the bag, and that's not the case," said Glass, a Ronan native who is now a mortgage loan officer at a small bank in Las Vegas. "We want everyone to still keep fighting." The Facebook page, called "Petition to have ESPN Lift Blackouts of FCS Playoff Games," was started last Tuesday by Missoula businessman John Sterrett, who sent it out to the approximately 400 people he was friends with on Facebook at the time (he's added several more since creating the page).
In less than a week it has spread to more than 90,000 Facebook users, and was well on the way to passing the 23,000-mark by early Monday evening for the number of people who have "signed" it.
While there has been some argument among them about who the "bad" guy is in this -- ESPN, Internet service providers, the NCAA or others -- many have posted messages encouraging people to contact everyone from their congressmen to the NCAA to ESPN advertisers.
They've also been calling ESPN directly to voice their dissatisfaction.
"I'm sure several thousand have called ESPN already," Sterrett said Monday. "For the most part they don't get a real person -- they get a computer line where they're asked to state their concerns. But a few of them got through to somebody live, and they say they were told that ESPN is aware that many Montana fans are not happy."
They've gone so far as to study the NCAA's policies regarding television rights, and were tickled when they found what they believe is a gaping loophole:
"If Turner/CBS and/or ESPN do not activate their television rights to any round of an NCAA championship, the NCAA may elect to sell these rights for local syndication in exchange for a rights fee."
As far as Glass, Sterrett and many others are concerned, online streaming is not the same as a television broadcast, and therefore ESPN has not activated its television rights.
"The FCC," Sterrett said, "does not regulate Internet feeds as broadcasts."
"I don't know if it holds water legally," said Bob Hermes, general manager of KPAX-TV, which televises most UM regular-season games, "but it may cloud the issue."
The last word he had, Hermes said Monday, was that "ESPN plans on continuing to exercise its exclusive rights to hold the game on ESPN3."
His station has a long and good relationship with ESPN, Hermes said, and would like to carry the game, but does need some lead time to do so.
"More is better," Hermes said. "Every day that goes by makes it harder to accommodate."
Purchasing the rights involves a "substantial amount of money," he said, and KPAX needs time to sell advertising slots for a broadcast.
Glass, who usually watches UM games at Torrey Pines Pub, a neighborhood bar in Las Vegas which has been dubbed "Grizzlyville," said she has gone so far as to contact a law firm or two about possible legal action.
"Just making inquiries," she said. "I don't have that kind of money, but I'm not opposed to trying to encourage attorneys to take the case pro bono."
Another representative had done likewise, Glass said, and spoken to attorneys in Billings who think ESPN might be violating anti-trust laws by using the games to force Internet service providers to carry ESPN3.
Among her other online activities Monday, Glass posted a doctored photograph at the Facebook site that shows UM mascot Monte on his knees in the end zone -- and being pepper-sprayed by the campus policeman who famously pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters at the Occupy UC Davis event recently.
ESPN, the cutline facetiously claims, has hired Lt. John Pike to "take care of their Montana problem."
A small coalition of Grizzly and Bobcat fans who found Sterrett's petition have been spending several hours every day taking the fight to ESPN and others. In addition to Glass, they include Ryan Gage, Teresa Michalski, Alexandra Sophia, Edd Willey, Chelleay Treichel and Janet Frederick.
Some of them have also suggested they'll print 25,000 signs that say "Shame on ESPN" and distribute them to fans attending the game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium Saturday if their efforts to get the games televised locally aren't successful.
Greg Weitekamp, director of broadcasting for the NCAA, did not return a message from the Missoulian Monday for this story.