Punching The Sunday Ticket

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Leave it to the National Football League.

On a day when the sports and sports business communities should have been contemplating the Madness of March on both the men’s and women’s sides of the court, and the finale of the 2009 World Baseball Classic and that tourney’s future, the NFL showed once again why it’s the king of American sports.

First, the league announced its Kickoff Weekend contingent of games, starting with a strong season-opener for NBC with Tennessee visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10. ESPN didn’t do badly either, at least with the first game of the 40th anniversary of Monday Night Football: The return of Mr. Giselle Bundchen from his 2008 season-ending knee injury as the New England Patriots host a certain former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, who now toils for the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 13. By the way, NFL Network has a good Thanksgiving match, with the New York Giants invading the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field.

For some that was more than enough to eclipse the big news out of the women’s tourney, Coach Pat Summitt’s callow Tennessee Lady Vols losing in their opener to Ball State. That marked the first time in the career of college hoops all-time winningest coach that her team didn’t make it out of the first round of the NCAAs, ending a skein of 27 straight Sweet 16 appearances.

But later in the day, the NFL certainly trumped its own scheduling news, when word came from its annual meeting in Dana Point, Calif. that it had reached a new four-year, $4 billion extension with DirecTV for the Sunday Ticket from 2011-2014. That’s $300 million more than the $700 million the satellite leader is currently paying per season for its key acquisition-retention package. What recession!

So much, for any chance of the conversation continuing about what has become the Big East Invitational in the men’s tourney, with five squads from that conference in the Sweet 16.

Moreover, as a new provision of the renewal, folks residing in apartments buildings and whose co-op boards haven’t come to terms with DirecTV, will be able to purchase a broadband version of Sunday Ticket, beginning in 2012. That gives the satellite leader a chance to reach out to a whole new base of customers.

With that, the record performance of CBSSports.com’s Internet streaming March Madness on Demand package of games no longer seemed that important.

Finally, in the big play of the new deal, the NFL said it would offer a Sunday Ticket staple of the past four seasons, the “Red Zone Channel” — live look-ins, highlights and fantasy league data — to cable, satellite, telco, wireless and Internet providers.

An NFL spokesman said the availability of the ad hoc channel on Sunday pro pigskin afternoons would not be tied to the providers’ carriage of the NFL Network, which has huge holes in its distribution lineup and only counts 35 million subscribers.

Perhaps access to the dedicated channel — which figures to be available to consumers for a fee — will not be tied expressly to NFL Network carriage. But it’s hard to imagine the league not offering a better Red Zone price to those distributors that just also happen to carry the NFL Network.

That or having NFL Network expand its primetime slate of eight games to a full-season — probably 18 regular-season games by 2012 — and hence the service’s leverage and value.

And you thought the final sports world word on March 23 was going to be about whether Korea could unseat Japan as the WBC champion.

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