- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

NFL Network went on the air — “launched” as they say in the business — 13 months ago. But it truly might have arrived via a newspaper cartoon that ran a few months after that.

Woman seated on a witness stand: “First we got the satellite dish. Then the NFL package. But the marriage really unraveled when the NFL Network started.”

Judge: “Wow, you get the NFL Network? Awesome! Mind if I come over sometime?”

Man (wearing “Football is Life” T-shirt): “Not at all. It’s 24 hours a day, you know.”

You know you’ve made it as a television entity when it is even suggested that viewing habits can become obsessive to the point of breaking up a marriage.

It happened at least once with ESPN. A Texas woman really did cite the omnipresent sports cable network as an electronic co-respondent in her divorce case. So far, this is not on NFL Network’s agenda, at least not publicly.

“We want to unite, not divide,” Rich Eisen, host of the prime-time centerpiece show “NFL Total Access,” wryly noted.

What they really want is to grow and get you to watch, and toward that end NFL Network (there is no “The” there) has succeeded. Wildly. Owned and operated by the NFL, which put up $100million in seed money to get things started, the network dished out its first broadcast on Nov.4, 2003 to DirecTV’s 12million satellite subscribers. That was it.

Since then, with cable giants Comcast, Charter Communications and, most recently, Adelphia carrying NFL Network on their digital packages, the high-definition signal now reaches about 25million subscribers, that is, homes capable of getting it. Although the number of viewers is unknown (ratings usually require 40million homes), big-name sponsors are plentiful, and the league is thrilled with such exposure. No cable network achieved 25million within one year. By comparison, NBA TV, which started five years ago, has 8million subscribers. And last month, NFL Network was cleared to be shown in Canada.

“I think we’re knocking the lights out of every kind of metric you have,” said NFL vice-president Steve Bornstein, who doubles as president and CEO of NFL Network. “The households, how fast you reach them. We’re really pleased with the [network’s] maturity, the look and the sophistication.”

NFL Network has a lot going for it, namely, the NFL. A football-shaped variation of the league logo adorns the glitzy, shiny, more-big-screens-than-a-cineplex “Total Access” set, the on-air command center. When it comes to packaging, marketing and promotion, the NFL is master of the sports universe, primarily because it peddles a commodity that is easy to package, market and promote.

“Our audience is the biggest fan base in the country,” said Eric Weinberger, coordinating producer for “Total Access.”

“It’s another new niche series,” said John Mansell, senior analyst for Kagan Research, which analyzes the broadcast media. “But it’s the NFL. That makes it more interesting for a lot of people.”

Mansell said it would be even better if the network televised live games. With part of the new NFL television contract after the 2005 season up for grabs, this remains a possibility, although perhaps a slim one.

“It’s a consideration,” said Bornstein, a former ESPN executive who helped spur the network’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s. “The headline to me is, a year ago, not even six months ago, it wasn’t. Thanks to the distribution and the quality of programming, ownership is considering it.”

But even without the real thing (they do televise live preseason games), there is plenty of programming to pacify any pro football nut — highlights, interviews and analysis, condensed taped games, coaches’ press conferences and features from NFL Films, not to mention a college football show and a Hollywood Fantasy Football segment, clearly not its strongest feature. Constant audio and statistical updates are provided during NFL telecasts on other networks.

The offseason, with the NFL combine, draft, trades, free agent signings and mini-camps, is fertile ground, too.

“You’re talking about a sport people are interested in not just six months a season but all 12 months,” Bornstein said. “We found we had 12-month service. I was a little unsure we could sustain the interest during the spring and summer months. The fact is it has not been an issue. We have that ability.”

What NFL Network does best, however, is get inside the game. Thank the cinematic and technological geniuses at NFL Films for that. No sideline conversation or in-huddle exhortation seems off-limits. Wireless microphones are as much a part of players’ and coaches’ equipment as shoulder pads and headsets.

• • •

NFL Network is divided into three camps. Most of the production takes place in Los Angeles. NFL Films, a partner from the outset and keeper of 100million feet (and growing) of footage, is located in Mount Laurel, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb. The corporate suits occupy league headquarters in New York.

The giddiness over the network’s success spans 3,000 miles.

“It’s surpassed what I had even thought would be possible,” said Eisen, one of several ESPN alumni working for NFL Network.

Said Weinberger: “I’m amazed how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. Right out of the gate, everyone has been behind us. It’s made it so much easier. And now, we’re even stronger at delivering information. The thing I’m most proud of is from a credibility standpoint, people are watching us to get their NFL information.”

Much has changed from a year ago. “Coachspeak,” broadcast on Mondays, travels around the league to various coaches’ press conferences. The Cowboys’ Bill Parcells is the star here; he spars with reporters, and you never know what you will get. Jim Mora Sr., who was the same way when he coached the Saints and Colts, reacts to what they say and occasionally gets to chat with his son, Atlanta coach Jim Mora Jr. (Recently, Jim Sr. complained he wasn’t getting enough free Falcons gear).

Ex-NFL stars Lincoln Kennedy, Rod Woodson and Terrell Davis, all retired within a year or two, have joined Eisen on the “Total Access” set. The network likes players who have quit playing recently and still have a connection, physically and emotionally, to the game. At times they look out of their element, tripping over words and lapsing into standard jock talk. But they, like everyone else, are still new at this.

“We’re still tweaking things,” Bornstein said.

In New Jersey, the “Playbook” show, the counterpart to the panel discussion/screamfests featured on other networks, features ex-players Sterling Sharpe (also late of ESPN), Solomon Wilcots and Glenn Parker joining host Paul Burmeister.

If there was any concern the NFL might somehow muffle the commentary or otherwise try to keep a lid on things, listen to Sharpe for any random, 10-second period. Click. There’s Sterling.

“I want to alert the fans in Cleveland that you have some impostors playing football,” he booms.

Breaking stories is not a network priority, but Adam Schefter, a former print reporter, aggressively pursues the news and does his share of digging.

“The one thing we cannot talk about is point spreads,” Eisen said. “For obvious reasons. But if people require that, there are so many places to get it. That’s the only thing we’ve been told about. Period. I’ve never heard from anybody [with the league].”

“We know who owns us,” said Bornstein, recently named the 10th-most “powerful man in sports” by SportsBusiness Journal. “But I don’t think that will stop us from being critical. We’re gonna report on the goings-on in the league, and there’s gonna be stuff the [NFL] is proud of and stuff they wish they didn’t have issues with. But the league has a great attitude about the [separation] of church and state. Our mandate is to be fair. But in today’s media, it’s hard to avoid conflicts.”

The network is popular among players, which makes sense because so many of them appear on it. Some, like Jerome Bettis, visit the set. Most appear via mini-cams set up at each of the 32 team headquarters. During the course of a program, “Total Access,” which airs at 7 each night and (a la ESPN) is repeated several times, will bounce from, say, “Broncos Cam” to “Eagles Cam” to “Redskins Cam” for on-site interviews. On Monday, viewers were treated via “Jets Cam” to a good portion of quarterback Chad Pennington’s rant against the media.

“We want to feel embedded, and I use that term cautiously,” Weinberger said. “We’re not Big Brother, but at a moment’s notice we can flick a switch and talk to someone at the Carolina Panthers. As a news producer it’s a fascinating experience. Not one team has shut us out.”

The viewers apparently feel the same way.

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