UPFRONT & CENTER: NFL Network Wants to Go Deep

National Football League Touts Cable Channel’s Multiplatform Prowess

New York -- The National Football League held an upfront Thursday evening for its two flagship media properties, NFL Network and NFL.com, in which it tried to assure advertisers that the network's distribution struggles would not keep it from growing subscribers.

National Football League

The league turned Roseland Ballroom here into an oversized version of the New York Giants’ locker room and brought in talent and stars to try and woo advertisers. Giants players Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, Brandon Jacobs and Osi Umenyiora joined legendary quarterback Brett Favre, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and NFL Network talent Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders in making the pitch.

The NFL pushed its multiplatform prowess during the presentation. “We’re trying to do everything we can to bring our content to you,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, kicking off the presentation.

“NFL Media is now readily accessible anytime they want it, anywhere they want it on any screen they choose,” said Ron Furman, senior vice president of marketing and sales for NFL Media.

Furman touted the growth of the network, saying it saw increases in all major demos season-to-season, including double-digit growth in the offseason.

As for NFL.com, Furman said ever since the league took control of the site in August 2007, it has seen a stark increase in unique users, as well as video streams “which are user-initiated, not auto-start like some of our competitors,” he added, targeting MLB.com, Major League Baseball’s official site.

Furman also touted the NFL Network’s 2008-09 game schedule, which is starting three weeks earlier this year to try to lock in viewers, and which will feature seven Thursday games and one Saturday game to end the season. While Thursday-night football is recognizable as a brand, it puts the games on the network against stiff competition from the broadcast networks and other cable channels.

“We are officially the home of Thursday-night football,” Furman said. “NBC built a platform of must-see TV, so Thursdays are just fine with us.”

“When you have this quality of content, I would be more worried if I was the competition,” said Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of NFL Network, speaking to reporters after the event.

NFL Network has struggled to get cable operators to carry the channel in the tiers it wants, resulting in legal battles. Perhaps most notably, last year, the network was scheduled to have the exclusive rights to a potentially historic regular-season game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Due to pressure from fans (and Congress), the network backded down and allowed CBS and NBC to simulcast the game, drawing a total of 61 million viewers.

Turning lemons into lemonade, the channel said that move may have helped to spur the rise in viewers, adding that fans got a taste of the network on CBS and NBC and wanted to see more.

While NFL Network pegged its subscriber base at 43 million, referencing numbers provided by Nielsen Media Research, other estimates have been as low as 31 million, due to the move to sports and premium tiers by some of the carriers.

Goodell promised the advertisers and media buyers in attendance that they would get additional subscribers to the network. “We will make sure it succeeds and get the distribution it deserves,” he added.

“I have 250 deals done and I have four more to go,” Bornstein said, referring to Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems, Charter Communications and Comcast, which have been reluctant to strike a deal with NFL Network. Bornstein added that he expected to get the deals done, although he would not elaborate on a timeline, nor on how pending litigation with Comcast would affect it.

NFL Media also owns Inside the NFL, which HBO declined to pick up for another season. Bornstein said the league is close to finding a new home for the show, although he would not give any more details.

The network is also seeking a replacement for Bryant Gumbel, who left as its play-by-play man last month. Bornstein said it is in the early stages of finding someone to take Gumbel’s seat.

For complete coverage of the upfronts, click here.