Cable Operators

NFL, ESPNU Score In Comcast Pacts

5/23/2009 1:00 AM Eastern

NFL Network and ESPNU scored big in distribution accords with Comcast last week.

With Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell personally involved in the negotiations, the parties ended a long-standing and litigious dance at the scrimmage line. The cable giant had migrated NFL Network to its sports tier, resulting in cases at the Federal Communications Commission and in New York State Supreme Court. Comcast's old deal with the NFL Network had ended on April 30.

Under the new pact, NFL Network by Aug. 1 will reside on Comcast's Digital Classic, its second most widely penetrated package with 10.8 million subscribers. The distribution paydirt: almost 9 million more subs on Comcast and over 45 million in total for the pro service.

Moreover, Comcast will likely position NFL Network's new RedZone Channel, which will showcase touchdowns and scoring chances during all Sunday afternoon games, beginning in the 2009 season, on the sports tier. That could drive sales for the package during the fall and winter months.

Neither Goodell nor Roberts would discuss license fees, which were said to be around 70 cents during the old contract, and somewhere between 40 and 50 cents under the new one, extending for nine years.

Goodell said during a press conference that he hoped Comcast's pact would provide a game plan for other recalcitrant operators to get in the action — Time Warner Cable, Charter, Cablevision and Suddenlink have been sitting on the distribution sideline over pricing and positioning. The commissioner said he planned to reach out to Time Warner Cable. Neither said if that had occurred by Friday.

Meanwhile, the first manifestations of an initiative by ESPN to migrate ESPNU from sports packages to wider digital carriage, in exchange for swapping ESPN Classic to less-penetrated tiers, took place with deals with Comcast and DirecTV that were announced during the sports' giant's upfront presentation May 19.

According to David Preschlack, executive vice president, Disney and ESPN Media Networks, ESPNU also will be positioned on Comcast's Digital Classic tier, as well as on the DBS leader's DirecTV Choice package. Those moves will boost the collegiate service's roster by 21 million to 46 million, giving it a 15 million-home lead over CBS College Sports.

Distribution into the southeast is key for ESPNU, which will kick off a Southeastern Conference football game of the week this fall.

In another facet of the deal, regional sports network Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast gained the rights over the next five years to a bevy of SEC football, basketball and Olympic sports events from ESPN's syndication arm. ESPN secured comprehensive SEC rights through a $2.25 billion deal finalized last August.

On the broadband front, Comcast.net will add ESPN360.com, adding 15 million high-speed customers to a roster that will grow to 41 million, just under two-thirds of the nation's 66 million broadband-equipped homes. One affiliate source pegged the monthly subscriber fee at five cents, but Preschlak declined to discuss deal points.

Asked whether he anticipated, with industry leader Comcast in the fold, that others would follow suit with ESPNU and ESPN360.com, Preschlak said, “These are landmark agreements that were a long time coming. We certainly hope so.”

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