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Left Coast Bias: Don't Expect NFL Network Deals Anytime Soon - Broadcasting & Cable

Left Coast Bias: Don't Expect NFL Network Deals Anytime Soon

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If you've been wondering when the NFL Network will finally get the full distribution it wants, I can clearly state that after a chat with league commissioner Roger Goodell, it is my belief that the Minnesota Vikings may actually win a Super Bowl first. And that should happen sometime between Charlie Rose asking a network exec a tough question and my second date with Scarlett Johansson.

After all the hooting and hollering, all the threats and action and inaction, at this point it seems only one thing is going to break the deadlock between the NFL and the big cable operators: the NFL cutting its per-sub price tag. But Goodell wants you to believe he is happy to wait it out and thus keep the NFL Network—as a local Los Angeles sports radio guy said last Thursday—in the sports version of the Witness Protection Program.

While most startup networks would be thrilled to have half the NFL Network's distribution at this stage, once the league passed up $400 million a year for the eight-game package it kept on its own network, it lost the right to compare itself to the latest home-and-gardening channel.

Goodell was in Los Angeles last week to, among other reasons, give a pat on the back and a pep talk to the NFL Network staff in a town-hall meeting format. And they deserve it, because their product is very good and getting even better. Their eight-game package is obviously the big ticket, and it has shown a marked improvement since they thankfully dumped Bryant Gumbel for the much stronger Bob Papa.

But the fact remains that the league has absolutely zero leverage to get the network off the digital tiers on which it resides on some of the major cable companies. So at some point, the NFL will have to come down from its 70-cents-per-subscriber price for that to happen.

While I believe this is the only way it will get done, there are plenty of other ways a deal could hypothetically happen. The most obvious is for the network to go to the mattresses, a tactic it has refused to pursue.

The move would be simple and effective: stop simulcasting the eight NFL Network games over the air in the markets of the two competing teams. Then there would be a gigantic and immediate outcry from fans who couldn't see their own team play, and even Goodell acknowledged “there is no question” that would bring the battle to a head quickly. But it won't happen.

“I will tell you there are people who have encouraged us to do that,” Goodell admitted. “But we are in it for the long haul; we don't think it's in the best interest.”

That's because the NFL doesn't want to stir the pot with fans, or even with bloviating politicians in Washington, who love to dangle threats about the league's anti-trust exemption. In fact, the NFL completely rolled over last year when it made a huge late-season game available to the entire country, the one time it actually could have turned the screws. Goodell said he would make the same decision again.

There are other ways this thing could end, such as the NFL partnering on the network with one or more cable companies, which the commissioner didn't shoot down as a potential outcome.

If the issue hasn't been settled by the time the exclusive DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal is up in 2010, the league could also consider pulling the satellite provider's exclusivity and using the package as a bargaining chip for NFL Network carriage. But if you believe Goodell, he is in no mood to do anything but wait it out. Ask him what will finally bring the dispute to a head, and he says, “probably time.”

But unless something changes, time is just going to get consumers more and more used to life without those games. So unless the NFL drops its asking price, I don't see how anything gets done anytime soon.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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