Customers of Cox Communications will be able see a controversial package of live football games that NFL Network starts airing this month, but at not as many subscribers as the league has sought.
When the NFL Network’s new eight-game, Thursday-Saturday package kicks off on Thanksgiving, Cox agreed will carry the matches, but only on a digital sports and information tier seen by a relatively small portion of its subscriber base. Anyone can buy the tier, but currently only 35% of Cox's subscribers get digital and only 60% of those buy the sports and information tier. Hence, only 21% of Cox’s subscriber will get the NFL games. .
The NFL has sought to use the new package of live games to secure wide carriage on cable systems’ basic tiers. However, Cox systems has an older deal allowing them to pay an extra fee for the live games, but keep NFL Network on the sports tier. This way, the additional costs only effect the bills of sports fans willing to pay up, rather than every single basic subscriber. “We are pleased to be offering the games in a way that is appropriate for our customers and gives them ability to choose,” says Bob Wilson, Cox’s senior vice president of programming. Depending on the market, other channels on the tier include ESPN News, NBA TV, Fox Soccer Channel; Fit TV, ESPN classic and Fuel.
The league badly needs to boost penetration after passing on $400 million in annual rights fees it could have commanded by selling the eight games to an outside network. That’s a $2.4 billion investment in the cable network in game rights alone. The league is spending $100 million to market the network, aimed largely at prodding subscribers to lobby their cable operators or switch to satellite TV. The network is currently in 41 million homes, 27 million of those via satellite carriers. Comcast -- the largest cable operator - is carrying the network on a somewhat favorable digital tier for this season, but in January plans to shove the network on to a very thinly-viewed sports tier.