Fox's Biggest Score
The NFL contract surprised everyone—even the executive who helped make the pitch
By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/12/2006 7:00:00 PM
Dan Neimoth was terrified. He had just found out from his son-in-law that the fledgling Fox television network was going to try to steal the National Football Conference television package away from CBS.
In 1993, there was no Fox affiliate where Neimoth lived in rural Nebraska, and he couldn't fathom missing half of all the NFL games on TV. But David Hill, then a Sky Sports executive and now chairman of Fox Sports, put his father-in-law's mind at ease.
“I said, 'Don't worry,” Hill recalls. “The chances of Fox getting the deal are so remote, it's nothing to worry about,'”
Hill, based in London, had just completed a deal for Sky Sports to acquire rights to air the top soccer league in England, a huge coup for News Corp.'s growing British network.
The Fox network had been battling to gain traction since its 1987 launch with a single night of programming. It was growing but still relegated to UHF stations in much of the country.
In late 1993, Hill received a call from News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, announcing that Fox was going to bid for the NFL. He wanted Hill to fly to the U.S. to help put the bid together.
The group traveled to Dallas to pitch the NFL committee. Although football had been covered a certain way for years, the Fox contingent talked about a new look, including a longer pre-game show and fresh graphics.
“Things like that sound so ancient now,” Hill laughs. He didn't think the league wanted to be on the new network, and so he headed back to England.
On a Friday night a few weeks later, Hill was at the Sky Sports Christmas party, drinking whiskey with some of the network's on-air personalities. A call came through to him. It was Murdoch: Fox got the NFL package, a four-year deal costing $1.58 billion.
Says Hill, “I honestly thought I had had one too many.”
NFL Bets on Hill
The deal made sense for the NFL in several respects, the least of which wasn't the $395 million annual payments Fox had bid. The league was also concerned that its audience was aging, and, although Fox wasn't even fully distributed, it was seen as relatively young and hip.
The NFL was also betting on Hill.
“Jerry Jones [owner of the Dallas Cowboys] said to me—which was typical for an American about soccer—'We figured, if you could make something as boring as English soccer work, imagine what you'll do to our game,'” Hill remembers. (Indeed, for the NFL, Fox “invented” the perpetual game-info box in the corner of the screen, swiping the technique from Sky Sports' coverage of soccer matches on the other side of the Atlantic.)
In short order, Hill was named president of Fox Sports and moved to Los Angeles. Once there, he had to build from the ground up: studio, control room, staff. “It was me and a piece of paper and a typewriter,” he remembers. “I don't even think we had computers.”
As for on-air game talent, poaching from previous rights-holder CBS was a no-brainer, and the lead team of Pat Summerall and John Madden was among those that moved to Fox. The network then put together the studio team that continued until this year, when host James Brown jumped to CBS.
Before Hill knew it, the start of the season had arrived. “All I remember about that entire eight months getting it up and running was the taste of Pepto-Bismol and Maalox,” he says. “I was so nervous.”
And when opening day finally arrived, one of Hill's biggest nightmares came true. He had emphasized the importance of doing everything by computer. And so it happened that, on the studio show, the scores Brown was reading on the air didn't jibe with those posted on the screen.
“The computers went haywire,” Hill remembers. “Can you imagine? We just knew the papers the next day would kill us. But no one noticed! How lucky is that?”
Kick-start for the Network
No matter the glitches, the NFL deal had put Fox on the map, literally. Fox's penetration had exploded on the heels of the move, momentum that had started with a major New World Communications deal in mid 1994 that moved 12 stations—including large-market football hotbeds Dallas and Detroit—to the Fox network.
“It kick-started the network,” Hill remembers. “People thought we were going to put Homer Simpson in the booth, but all of a sudden, Fox, which may or may not have had a question mark over it, became totally valid.”
Back in Nebraska, Dan Neimoth called his son-in-law and happily informed him that Fox had just showed up on his television system.
“Surprise, surprise,” Hill told him.
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