"There’s no doubt that sports programming is very popular. But people should be able to choose whether or not they want to pay for it on a monthly basis," said Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, on an Orlando, Fla., sports radio show Tuesday morning."Non-sports fans are subsidizing the cost for sports fans," said Polka, who represents 1,000 small cable companies. "If these costs keep going up, lawmakers and policymakers are going to get involved … and ESPN isn’t going to like it."Last week, ESPN and NFL signed a $1.9 billion per year deal that will keep Monday Night Football on the sports network for another 10 years and deliver pro football games online and on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.Cable and satellite subscribers already pay about $5 a month for sports coverage from ESPN and ESPN 2 - even if they don’t watch it. Polka predicts this deal will add close to another dollar to the monthly fee.Sports programming is so popular that most cable and satellite companies feel like they have to carry ESPN and other regional sports networks, even if it increases subscription rates."We think it would be entirely appropriate for Congress to look at the price of programming and to determine if the current model benefits consumers and what choices there should be," Polka said.Some pay-TV companies, including DISH Network, have suggested creating a "sports tier" subscription that includes sports-only programming. That way, sports fans could pay the extra few dollars a month to get that programming and people who never watch ESPN would not have to pay the extra cost.To some extent, ESPN and other regional sports networks - like the recently created Longhorn Network that covers University of Texas sports - have the upper hand. Their programming has a very loyal following that delivers key audience demographics to advertisers. Plus, eight of the top 10 programs in cable history - excluding breaking news - were NFL games on ESPN."No one has the breadth and worldwide media assets or the ability to monetize a property the way ESPN can, particularly with Monday Night Football and our complete NFL coverage," ESPN/ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer said when the deal was signed.Polka wants Congress and the FCC to get involved to pressure ESPN to allow cable companies to carry it on a sports tier rather than a typical cable package."ESPN has been profiting off cable subscribers year after year," Polka said. "They go to cable operators and say, ‘We’ve got this great content, now you’ve got to pay for it.’"This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 12:40 p.m. on September 13, 2011.