Agony of Defeat


Since its inception, the NFL Network has been battling Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, on carriage issues. Last week, as this battle continued, the NFL asked the FCC to “quickly” resolve its complaint.

To use a football term, this dispute seems to be in its 250th overtime period, so the quick part is out of the question. But we'd wish the two combatants, without the FCC, would reach some reasonable conclusion.

The NFL argues that on its systems, Comcast carries Versus and the Golf Channel on basic tiers, and says that's because Comcast owns them. It wants the NFL Network on that same level. But Comcast says it has made the NFL Network available on a sports tier—for an extra fee to subscribers—and that the NFL Network agreed to that arrangement by contract.

“The NFL is the richest and most powerful of all sports leagues, with immense market power, yet it keeps running to federal and state governments to try to force changes in a deal it actually negotiated with Comcast,” the cable operator said in a statement last week. “The NFL has received precisely what it bargained for and needs no government assistance.”

Indeed, it would seem Comcast has it right. There's no doubt in our mind that Versus and the Golf Channel are carried on Comcast's basic tier because Comcast owns them. But we're not sure Comcast wouldn't carry the NFL Network if it were not priced as expensively as it is. And though the NFL Network programs enough for fans to occupy themselves with pro football all year long, the principal value rests in the eight games it airs exclusively.

For the NFL Network to be renegotiating suggests to us that the league is taking its cues from some of its more pampered athletes who try to get a new contract when their old one is still in force. Having the FCC referee this battle is unnecessary. The Comcast-NFL disagreement is a contract dispute where the FCC should have no role. But because football is popular and cable operators generally are not, you can depend on Congress (and the FCC) to assume familiar positions extolling the NFL and condemning Comcast.

That won't help solve things quicker. But it is good theater.

The NFL would be in a much better position if it weren't already reaping billions from contracts with cable and broadcast networks to show every single game that's played, in one place or another. Had it held back a larger inventory of games when it last negotiated its contracts, it would have a better bargaining position. If it partners with an established cable player, from ESPN to Comcast itself, this whole controversy could be over.

It also seems to us that ardent NFL fans should be willing to pay to see the NFL Network, the way fanatics also pay dearly to DirecTV to purchase the NFL Sunday Ticket premium service, which lets them see every and any game they choose. To use the old sports cliché, we'd tell the NFL that sometimes you just have to play with pain.