Could NFL Net Punch Comcast’s 'Ticket’?

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Comcast Corp.’s agreement with the NFL Network and its array of pro-football encores and live preseason games — plus access to extensive highlights via the MSO’s video-on-demand applications — places the nation’s largest cable company “on a path” to be in the running for the league’s attractive out-of-market Sunday package, according to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Tagliabue, who appeared with Comcast chairman Brian Roberts at a Sept. 13 press conference held here at the Comcast Center on the University of Maryland campus to officially launch NFL Network across its digital-cable systems, said the MSO would be among the companies considered for the “NFL Sunday Ticket” contract now held exclusively by DirecTV Inc.

The direct-broadcast satellite giant’s deal for the Sunday Ticket out-of-market pay-per-view package expires at the end of the 2005 season.

Asked about the possibility of the league inking such an exclusive contract with Comcast, Tagliabue said: “We’re taking this a season at a time, but you couldn’t rule that out. If we did it, we’d want to do it with strong companies, and that includes companies such as Comcast. … With the relationship we’ve developed here, it has positive ramifications for not just the Sunday Ticket, but other packages we’re looking for.”

Roberts said it’s preliminary to discuss whether Comcast would step up its relationship with the NFL to the point where the MSO might present live Sunday games, but it’s a move the MSO is “interested in evaluating.”

Feeding into the fanaticism that fuels the sport, NFL Network executives want the first channel dedicated in its entirety to professional football to reach occasional fans, as well as avid ones.

Comcast’s 8 million digital-cable subscribers with VOD capabilities can now get access to a full recap of the weekend’s action through up to 20-minute game summaries, replete with video highlights. Comcast is dubbing this day-after, extended highlights feature “NFL Replay” on its VOD menu. NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky said that for most games the highlight package would run between 12 and 15 minutes.

“If you wake up today and heard that the Atlanta game had a great finish, in 10 minutes you can go check out that game,” Roberts said at the press conference.

Added Tagliabue, “It’s also looking forward, underscoring last week’s drama and building interest for next week.”

Additionally, Comcast VOD subscribers will gain access to what the MSO is calling “Local Replay (the service bills it as NFL Network Extra) in which viewers can tap league archival footage and programming dedicated to their local team. Palansky said NFL Network would develop content putting an “outstanding day by a running back into historical context. We want to keep things fresh.”

With the VOD component, NFL Network officials said fans can be their own analysts, fast-forwarding and rewinding through game-day highlights at their own pace. Viewers also get the league’s press conferences and programs that take them into locker rooms.

Comcast is promoting the launch this week with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, including TV ads with NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen, video mail outreach with NFL Films president Steve Sabol, newspaper and magazine ads, direct mail, radio spots and cross-channel commitments.

With the exception of the 54 preseason games, NFL Network officials say there are no plans for live games to originate on the channel. The cable company would not disclose deal terms of its NFL Network carriage pact, nor how many years it would last, except to say at least two.

But the benefit for Comcast and other cable companies, said Palansky, is a deeper relationship with the NFL, which should strengthen MSOs’ position when contract-renewal time arrives for Sunday Ticket.

“That’s our message: 'Look, start a relationship with us now, test us out, work with us for a couple years, and that will put everyone in a better position” to negotiate, Palansky said.

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