With its first full day of play drawing nigh, the National Football League has 11 distributors in the huddle for its new RedZone channel, but it's in-house network still faces long-yardage situations with a number of key distributors.
NFL RedZone has secured at least 11 carriers as the rookie scoring channel prepares to kick off on Sept. 13, the first Sunday of the 2009 campaign. This weekend will also see the bow of a new broadband service from DirecTV featuring live games, as well as the league's own NFL Game Rewind product, encoring contests on a delayed basis on the computer.
However, NFL Network, whose eight-game primetime slate begins Nov. 12 with the San Francisco 49ers-Chicago Bears match-up, remains on the sideline with at least four significant MSOs, notably Time Warner Cable.
Forged from contract renewals with Sunday Ticket provider DirecTV and Sunday-afternoon carriers CBS and Fox, scoring service NFL RedZone -- like its DBS Red Zone forbear -- will whip viewers around through highlights, fantasy stats and live look-ins as teams cross the 20-yard-line, the so-called "red zone," all in high-definition.
NFL Network, which is administering the package, hosted by Scott Hanson and presented from a new state-of-the-art studio at its Los Angeles headquarters, had signed up 11 affiliates for the service by Friday afternoon, including Comcast, Dish Network and both major telco video providers, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse.
Negotiations with other distributors were expected to continue throughout the weekend, according to an NFL Network spokesman.
For its part, DirecTV, as part of its $4 billion renewal for exclusivity for the Sunday Ticket out-of-market package covering the 2011-14 seasons, is pitching a broadband equivalent of that service for $349 for the season to consumers in Manhattan, who can't receive the DBS provider's signals. DirecTV plans to roll out the Sunday Ticket Online nationally next season.
The league itself has also put the broadband ball in play via its Game Rewind product, which features four different package options. NFL Network president and CEO Steve Borstein also hinted that NFL RedZone might add a broadband component down the road.
What NFL Network hasn't added is distribution deals with Time Warner Cable, Charter, Cablevision and Suddenlink, cable operators that have never carried the service over pricing and positioning issues. Members of the group were expected to join the team after Comcast -- following years of legal scrimmaging -- in May announced that it would migrate NFL Network to Digital Classic, its second most widely distributed tier, on Aug. 1. That move bolstered the network's subscriber base by 9 million, while NFL RedZone subbed for it on Comcast's sports tier.
All told, NFL Network has deals with hundreds of distributors and is now approaching a 50 million-subscriber count, according to officials.
However, No. 2 cable operator Time Warner Cable appears destined to sit out another season.
"We have four of the five top distributors on board and NFL Network has been widely accepted by the industry," said Bornstein. "It's extremely disappointing. Time Warner Cable is notable by its exception."
Time Warner Cable countered on Friday. "We have had discussions with NFL Network, but don't have an agreement. It's still priced excessively," said a spokeswoman.
For its part, Cablevision declined comment, but sources suggest it's also unlikely to carry NFL Network this season. Borstein was more sanguine: "We're always optimistic with Cablevision.
"Negotiations are apparently still in motion with Suddenlink and Charter, but Bornstein said "there are different considerations" at play there, adding it's "not likely" something will "happen in the near future."
A Suddenlink spokesman said the operator remains in discussions with NFL Network; Charter couldn't be reached by press time.
As for NFL RedZone, NFL Network has secured distribution for the ad hoc service via overall renewal deals (Comcast, Dish and RCN), as well as by inking add-on pacts with others like AT&T, FiOS and Blue Ridge Communications.
A strategy scorecard shows that U-verse and Blue Ridge are positioning NFL RedZone on their premier HD packages. Like Comcast, Dish is also making the service available on its sports tier. For their part, RCN and Verizon FiOS are offering it as a full-season, 17-week subscription play for $49.95.
"We're trying to be flexible with the service. It will help our affiliates drive their businesses," said Bornstein. "It's a fantastic asset for distributors and one that will be embraced by fans. All of our market research indicates this is going to be a very popular companion piece for fans to watch NFL games with."
Service Electric, Buckeye Cable, Nex-Tech, Mid-Tel Cable and Dakota Central Telecom, at press time, had also signed up to present NFL RedZone during the 2009 season. Others are expected to join the distribution lineup.
Bornstein also feels good about the prospects for NFL Game Rewind, which is accessible through NFL.com. The package is available in four forms: full season for $49.99; an individual team's complete season for $39.99; by the month for $14.99; or by a weekend for $7.99.
"The NFL wants to be where fans are. Broadband is a very important platform," said Bornstein, before noting that "there eventually could be a broadband channel for NFL RedZone, too."
NFL Game Rewind will also feature an application affording viewers who may have a game blacked out locally (NFL rules call for the match-up not to be shown in the DMA if the game is not sold out 72 hours before the scheduled kickoff) a chance to see the contest involving the home team for free, beginning at midnight the day the tilt is finished.
"This is in recognition of the economic issues facing our fans," Bornstein said, adding that the NFL will provide protection for ESPN's Monday Night Football, by closing access to NFL Game Rewind during the cablecast window.
As such, blacked-out fans would be able to watch their team's game for up to 72 hours, excluding during the MNF period.