Sunday, February 5, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51. The Super Bowl is not only the most watched sporting event in North America, it is the most watched television broadcast in America of any kind. According to Variety, the 2015 Super Bowl was the most watched television event in American history. Even those who don’t regularly watch sports find interest in the halftime show or the creative advertisements that cost an immense $5.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime. Americans consume more food on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year, with the exception of Thanksgiving. It’s been estimated that as a nation we will consume 1.25 billion chicken wings and 120 million pounds of avocados on Super Bowl Sunday this year.
Many churches recognize Super Bowl Sunday as an opportunity for more than just food and entertainment. Each year, churches all across America will throw watch parties for the event and encourage their members to invite their friends and neighbors to attend. The Super Bowl provides churches with great opportunities for evangelism and fellowship.
ESPN reported that as Atlanta Falcons quarterback, Matt Ryan, prepares for this year’s game he called two time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Peyton Manning for advice. Manning’s first Super Bowl win came in 2007 when he was playing for the Indianapolis Colts. Prior to the 2007 Super Bowl, Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis planned a Super Bowl watch party at its church. The church encouraged its 400 members to invite guests to come and watch the game together. In response, the National Football League (NFL) sent a cease and desist letter to Fall Creek informing them that the church party was in violation of both copyright and trademark laws.
The NFL’s letter to Fall Creek caught the attention of churches, media, and lawmakers from all over the country. Churches could not have large group viewings of the Super Bowl without fear of the NFL pursuing churches for copyright infringement. As a result of political pressure, in 2009, the NFL revisited its stance on enforcing NFL copyright and trademark rights against churches and other religious organizations. The NFL has provided guidelines for churches which allow them to host Super Bowl viewing parties without infringing on the NFL’s rights. Church leaders should familiarize themselves with the following guidelines to ensure that their church’s Super Bowl viewing parties do not infringe on the NFL’s rights:
- Churches may show the broadcast in the church’s “usual place of worship” if the church owns the property.
- Churches that do not own property and rent their worship space (e.g. a school auditorium, movie theatre, or hotel conference room) may not use the rented space to view the game.
- Churches may show the broadcast using any equipment the church already owns. If the church owns a big screen, projectors, and a sound system for use “in the course of ministry”, this equipment may be used to broadcast the game. Churches are not allowed to rent equipment to broadcast the game.
- Churches are not allowed charge admission to the event. Churches may, however, accept donations to defray the costs associated with the event (e.g. canned food for “Soup”-er Sunday).
- Churches may not use trademarked terms or images in promotional materials or publications. The NFL holds trademarks on the following terms: Super Bowl, Super Sunday, and the names of the NFL teams but not the cities (for example the “Broncos” are trademarked but “Denver” is not).
- Churches may show the broadcast live or make a temporary digital recording of the broadcast so that it may be viewed in its entirety without conflicting with Sunday evening church services, but the copy of the broadcast may not be kept permanently.
- If a church would like to use the broadcast or any of the NFL’s copyrighted or trademarked material for an activity outside the scope of these guidelines, the church must receive permission and licensing from the NFL in advance.
Since the NFL released these guidelines in 2009, churches may broadcast the Super Bowl without the fear of facing legal liability. Church leaders who see the Super Bowl as an opportunity for fellowship and evangelism should follow these guidelines.
John Litzler directs the Church Law division of Christian Unity Ministries in San Antonio. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and Baylor Law school. He is a member of the SSHS class of 2004.