- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

The NFL was in a bit of trouble just 10 months ago.
Despite the league's undisputed strength, TV ratings were down considerably. Fox and ABC grumbled publicly about heavy fiscal losses from broadcasting football, and the networks shuffled around talent at a blinding pace seeking some kind of ratings boost. Advertisers, in search of young males, began to look elsewhere.
With the 2002 regular season now in the books, a much-needed boost was delivered. The NFL averaged 14.4million viewers per game this season, up 5.5 percent from 2001 and the best showing since 1999. Fox, in particular, had its best year with the NFL since 1995. ESPN beat its 2001 marks by 17 percent for its Sunday night coverage and trumped all other cable challengers. Even ABC's "Monday Night Football," after a seven-year ratings slide, improved viewership 1 percent with newcomer John Madden in the booth.
Buoyed by the expansion Houston Texans, total attendance (16.9 million) and average attendance (65,938) also hit all-time highs.
The increases were not altogether surprising, even as the U.S. economy wobbles into 2003. Nearly two-thirds of the teams were still in playoff contention during the final two weeks. Scoring and overtime games were up considerably. And the delayed start to the season kept the NFL from competing with the Labor Day holiday weekend.
But the NFL's improved marks resonate more broadly than just now. With the league again on an upswing, commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his lieutenants are able to negotiate with the networks and corporate sponsors on future deals from a position of strength. Ad rates reversed a two-year slide and showed modest growth in 2002, and they figure to creep up more in 2003, starting with Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of this month.
Already, the NFL's reinvigoration was shown in its five-year contract extension with DirecTV for its out-of-market TV package. The new $2billion pact signed last month more than triples the NFL's annual revenue from DirecTV.
"The NFL right now is the only recurring sports broadcast property to hold or increase its audience on a truly mass scale," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant. "That, in and of itself, puts the league in a rather enviable position."
However, several issues with the NFL's broadcast portfolio do remain. Even with its remarkable showing for 2002, Fox still loses more than $350million annually on the NFL. ABC desperately wants a flexible schedule to ensure better late-season contents for prime time, something Fox and CBS bitterly oppose.
League executives, though historically in favor of a flexible schedule, now find themselves in the middle of this network scrum, hoping to keep everyone happy.
"ABC's problem this season wasn't tune-in it was tune-out," said Dennis Lewin, the NFL's vice president for broadcasting. (The average margin of victory on "MNF" games was 14.9 points, the highest differential in four years.) "The last game [a St. Louis-San Francisco contest that had no playoff bearing and generated MNF's worst single-game ratings ever] notwithstanding, I'm not sure a flexible schedule would have helped ABC this year."
Three seasons remain on the current TV contracts, though the NFL does have an out clause it is not expected to exercise. The annual payout to the league is scheduled to increase from $2.5billion in 2002 to $2.8billion in 2005. Hefty raises beyond that 2005 figure are unlikely, even with the improved ratings, without granting additional assets to the networks, such as additional ad slots or relaxing TV blackout rules.
Steve Bornstein, a former senior executive at ABC and ESPN, is working with the league on how to mollify the networks long term while also incorporating new elements like high-definition TV, the league's forthcoming NFL Channel and broadband Internet.
But the NFL still has one big bullet in its gun: its standing compared to the rest of the TV industry. The average viewership for regular-season games on ABC, Fox and CBS trumped the overall prime-time average for those networks by a whopping 52 percent, the widest such margin ever. Football's renewed power to draw advertiser-coveted males aged 18-34 is similarly unchallenged; that demographic posted a 16percent leap with the NFL in 2002.
And few industry executives dispute the power of the NFL to promote other network programming. Popular shows such as "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" became bona fide hits almost entirely on the back of relentless promotion during NFL games.
"We're talking about a time-tested and proven vehicle for promotion, one that's only challenged by the Olympics," Ganis said. "There are certainly a variety of unresolved issues, such as flexible schedule and alternative means of delivery for games. But that power to draw viewers to games and then where you want them to go is an extremely strong asset."

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