Challenges Await NFL Net, OLN


The National Football League’s move to award its late-season, eight-game primetime package to NFL Network not only changes the game plan for its in-house service, but for Comcast Corp.’s OLN as well.

The Jan. 28 decision caught many in the sports community by surprise. The first game will air Thanksgiving night (Nov. 23).

“The league must be terribly confident that the increase in fees and advertising for NFL Network will drive financial models past the $300 million plus it was offered” by Comcast, sports consultant Mike Trager said.

Now, the two-year-old network will seek distribution daylight beyond its current 35 million subscriber base.

“It will be very interesting to see how they can get it to expanded basic,” one cable-operator executive said. “They don’t have Time Warner [Cable] or Cablevision [Systems Corp.]; Charter [Communications Corp.] dropped them. It’s on digital with Cox [Communications Inc.] and Comcast. There’s already some surcharge language about having games built into the contract.”

Another wild card: New England Patriots owner and broadcast committee member Robert Kraft indicated that the game rights could be sold after two years.

NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky explained that, because it’s an in-house deal, conceptually that could happen. But he said: “The intention is to air the games. We’re not going to let the network grow and then pull them back.”

In a league first, NFL Network also gained the right to air full replays of the previous weekend’s contests, not just highlights.

Comcast — which insiders said also offered the NFL an equity position in OLN — now faces a third-and-long situation, relative to making its network a national competitor to ESPN.

Last August, Comcast acquired National Hockey League rights for at least two seasons. It had hoped to use the NFL package to further buttress OLN and drive rights fees higher, with many affiliate deals set to expire over the next two years.

“Clearly, they wanted it, and nothing has the impact of the NFL,” Kagan Research sports analyst John Mansell said of Comcast. “But I do think you’ll see OLN continue to build some events and go after other properties.”

Possibilities include rights to Arena Football League, Major League Baseball and some college contests.

Comcast did not comment on the NFL decision. Interview requests for Comcast and NFL Network executives were declined.

NFL Network will open up its playbook at an upfront presentation in New York in April that coincides with the league’s draft of college players.