- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Thirty-three years ago, the Rolling Stones sang, "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Today, the song has particular relevance for the NFL.
After a can-do-no-wrong year in which the league beat Oakland owner and longtime nemesis Al Davis in court, brokered labor peace with the players through 2007 and successfully realigned its divisions, the NFL's military march hit several bumps last week.
First, CBS and Fox rebuffed the league's last-minute attempt to implement a flexible December schedule for next season. And on the sponsorship front, NFL officials failed to sign long-time supporters Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coca-Cola to new national deals at increased rates.
The TV situation represented the biggest blow to the league. In recent years, the NFL's general playbook has been to articulate a goal, confer with the relevant parties, and simply make it happen. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue followed form by outlining his desire for a flexible 2002 TV schedule two weeks ago at league meetings in Orlando, with the goal of showcasing the best games to the largest possible audiences late in the regular season. Meetings were quickly arranged with CBS and Fox. Everything looked OK for a moment.
Major problems quickly arose. With schedules due for release by late March, time simply was not available to carve out a complex amendment to multi-billion-dollar contracts between the NFL and ABC, CBS and Fox.
More fundamentally, an even trade between the parties never materialized. Nobody disputes that ABC's "Monday Night Football" is the league's foremost TV showcase, and being locked into individual games more than five months before the season starts isn't quite fair. It's part of the reason why "MNF" ratings sink to record lows year after year. Conversely, Fox and CBS have the ability to juggle their schedules.
But CBS and Fox giving up prime games to ABC and receiving nothing tangible in return the core of the NFL's latest flexible schedule proposal was about as attractive to them as a season full of Cincinnati-Arizona games.
"In this ratings environment, everybody is trying to hold on to every tenth of a ratings point," said Fox Sports president Ed Goren.
After CBS and Fox said no, the NFL quietly put the flexible schedule on its "back burner" Thursday. Having learned its lesson about trying to push too hard, too fast, expect the league to slowly proceed toward a test program for 2003, or simply wait until the TV contracts expire after the 2005 season.
The sponsorship situation, while still very lucrative, also contains some pitfalls for the NFL. In the course of two days, Pepsi replaced Coke as the NFL's official soft drink sponsor, and Coors replaced both Anheuser-Busch and Miller as the official beer sponsor.
The two deals will bring the league nearly $30 million per year in sponsorship rights fees, as well as a younger demographic thanks to Pepsi's and Coors' ties with consumers under 30. The moves, however, also mean the NFL, instead of being connected nationally to the No.1 soft drink company and the Nos.1 and 2 beer companies, will be hitched to No.2 in soda and No.3 in beer.
The Pepsi and Coors deals also do not contain any individual team marketing rights, which means Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coke still can and will be using team logos for marketing and fighting for consumer attention right along with Coors and Pepsi.
"The two deals are different in their nuances but are similar in the fact that you had the incumbent companies deciding to let these [national] sponsorships go and be a bit more conscious about cost," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant who frequently works with the NFL. "They already have a perceptive affiliation with the NFL, and as a result the value of what a sponsorship like this brings."
The Stones, in that same song, also sang, "But if you try sometimes, you get what you need." That, too, applies to the NFL. In a still-shaky economy, the NFL now has a safety net of five bona fide heavyweights of corporate America supporting football and buying significant amounts of ad time during games instead of three.
The league, thanks to the recent negotiations with CBS and Fox, also has a clearer understanding of a TV marketplace in which even the most popular sports entity generates sagging TV ratings, hundreds of millions in fiscal losses and heavy corporate pressure on network executives. That knowledge, in turn, should ultimately lead to more open thinking in the next set of TV contracts and more viewing options for fans.
"We had a very honest and frank exchange of ideas," Goren said. "I think we all know each other a bit better and found out where everyone stands, and that's always healthy."


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