- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

The NFL Network, which has grown into an Emmy-winning force in just 10 months of existence, is under consideration to show live games as part of the league’s next set of TV distribution contracts, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said yesterday.

Whether Tagliabue is being genuine or is relying on a classic negotiating ploy will not be known until early next year, when the league is expected to start announcing its TV plans for the 2006 season and beyond. What is certain, however, is Tagliabue’s happiness with the network’s ability to become available in more than 40 million homes and quickly develop a fan following.

“Live games are a possibility for the NFL Network,” Tagliabue said. “We are already seeing the quality of the network’s presentation, the access it has to players and coaches and the way it presents our sport. This is something that clearly has strategic value for us. The question is whether we start [putting on live games] sooner rather than later.”

A move of some live games to the NFL Network undoubtedly would ruffle feathers across the sports industry. The network already receives more access to key league and team personnel than many established football writers. And last month, Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president, said a shift of live action to the NFL Network “would be bad for our business.”

But moving some games to the NFL Network, though potentially requiring giving up some upfront rights fees, could reap significant long-term gains for the league. By operating its own network, the NFL enjoys the dual revenue stream of advertising and subscriber fees paid by cable and satellite TV operators like Comcast and DirecTV. Some of the channel’s ad time is also sold as part of much larger sponsorship deals with the NFL.

“If it walks like a NFL broadcast network and talks like a NFL broadcast network, ultimately at some point it will be showing NFL games,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports industry consultant and university lecturer. “The NFL has really separated itself from its competition over the last year or so and obviously feels it has some wind at its sails.”

The 5-year-old NBA TV airs some regular-season games. But since that channel is typically placed on more limited sports tiers within digital cable, the move has not caused significant problems with the NBA’s network TV partners. The NFL, by comparison, is seeking maximum distribution in every carriage deal it strikes and is mostly on digital basic or expanded basic tiers.

NFL games currently are seen on Fox, CBS, ESPN and ABC. Pacts for all of them, amounting to $17.8 billion over an eight-year period, expire after the 2005 season, and all are seeking extensions of some form. “Heavy discussions” are underway with a variety of networks not limited to this group, Tagliabue said.

Several potential tweaks beyond the NFL Network have been discussed, including the shifting of some Sunday start times, the addition of more Thursday night games and ESPN taking over the “Monday Night Football” package from ABC. Though a 35-year stalwart holding a hallowed place in TV history, “MNF” is also a big money-loser for ABC and has not brought an appreciable lift to the network’s recent entertainment programming.

Tagliabue yesterday attended a press conference at the University of Maryland to trumpet the NFL Network’s recent deal to be shown on Comcast digital cable systems. The agreement was reached 18 months after the NFL enraged the entire cable industry by keeping its popular out-of-market game package exclusively on DirecTV through the 2005 season. Many cable companies felt they were used as leverage to extract a mammoth $2 billion deal out of the satellite carrier.

The NFL was able to soothe Comcast by offering a video-on-demand feature that allows Comcast subscribers to see condensed replays of games each week. The service is not offered on DirecTV.

“Viewer-controlled TV is where the industry is headed, and this is obviously a major brand we are partnering with,” said Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman and chief executive.

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