LOWDOWN ON THE UPFRONT: They Might Be Giants

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NEW YORK—NFL Network sought to capitalize on a homefield advantage during its upfront presentation to advertisers at Roseland Ballroom here Thursday night.

Amidst a replica of the New York Giants locker room -- the entrance was flanked by the Lamar Hunt, George Halas and Vince Lombardi trophies -- NFL Network brought out the real thing. Assembled Manhattan media buyers, who had been watching the Giants' exploits in the Big Game, then witnessed six members of the Super Bowl XLII champions in person: Michael Strahan (serenaded by chants of “one more year”), Osi Umenyiora, Amani Toomer, Brandon Jacobs, Aaron Ross and Steve Smith.

Network talent Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, Steve Mariucci, Adam Shefter and Deion Sanders interviewed the players, who were sporting their Big Blue unis, about remembrances of their regular-season and Super Bowl battles with the New England Patriots; the NFL draft, the 2008 version of which occur this weekend at Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned Radio City Music Hall; and the network’s access and coverage.

The mic was then turned over to another gridiron giant: Roger Goodell.

The NFL commissioner, discussing the passion fans have for the sport and channel, talked about the 35 million viewers on average who tuned in the unprecedented three-network simulcast of the Dec. 29 regular-season finale last year between the G-men and then undefeated Pats, and the 226 million fans who watched pro football last season. He spoke about the opportunities for advertisers to associate their brands with a "great game and great content."  


Goodell also said the league remains committed to NFL Network and the NFL will "make it work this year or next year."

What Goodell left unsaid: the distribution and legal battles NFL Network has been encountering/waging, which have left it with significant carriage holes.

Ron Furman, senior vice president customer marketing and sales, then stepped to the scrimmage line, making the pitch for NFL Media Group, comprising NFL Network, NFL.com, NFL Mobile and NFL On Demand, and its “100% commitment to your business.”

Furman spoke of changes to the network’s primetime eight-game slate, which will kick off during the 10th week of the 2008 season, instead of on Thanksgiving night. He informed that seven of the contests are now on Thursdays (up from five), a night that NBC once made the envy of the TV world with a bevy of auto and studio ads. He mentioned the strong teams on the schedule, highlighted by week 16 match-ups of AFC South rivals Indianapolis Colts-Jacksonville Jaguars and the last regular-season game at Texas Stadium, when the Dallas Cowboys host the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, Dec. 20..

He pointed out how NFL Network games have won every night in the cable ratings and predicted a repeat of that performance this season. Furman noted that the audience for the aforementioned regular-season finale -- 61 million watched some of the Dec. 29, 2007 action on NFL Network, CBS or NBC. That gave them a taste for the network’s presentation style and the sampling helped key a 25% rise in primetime and total-day ratings during the first quarter 2008.

Growth at NFL.com -- operational control of which was brought in-house Aug. 14, 2007  -- was also trumpeted. Since NFL.com came into the league’s huddle, it has tackled 11.5 million unique monthly visitors, including 12 million in December. Citing Comscore data, Furman said NFL.com added 1.2 million unique visitors in the fourth quarter, while ESPN.com lost 2.2 million.

Moreover, the site scored 130 million, user-initiated video streams, a 300% rise from the prior season. He also emphasized engagement qualities, saying videos on other sites often start automatically and how 60% of NFL offerings were watched from start to finish.

“I challenge anyone to match that level,” he said, adding that the NFL.com’s presentation of select action from the Nov. 29 Green Bay-Dallas game was one of the biggest events ever on the Web.

Furman, with accompanying presentation materials on three large screens above the faux locker room -- the brainchild of Dena Kaplan, the former GSN head marketer who now serves as senior vice president of marketing at NFL Network -- described integrated multimedia sponsorships. Among them: GMC, defensive player of the year polling drew 1 million fan votes; the U.S. Army, wherein users submitted questions online and the best were then read on-air during pre-game programming; and Wendy’s, whose on-air half-time sponsorship also manifested with an extensive online highlights package.

Sanders concluded the formal presentation by bringing out Strahan, now more casually attired, flanked by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and retired Packers legend, Brett Favre to a loud ovation.

Afterward, Steve Bornstein was blitzed by members of the press during an informal question-and-answer session in which the NFL Network president and CEO and NFL executive vice president of media, audibled on a number of topics, including:

*Discussions are ongoing with a couple of different outlets for Inside The NFL, the NFL Films-backed highlight show that HBO punted on after a 31-year run, following the conclusion of the 2008 title tilt. Bornstein said dialogue was continuing and the service was close to making a decision on where the show will resurface.

* NFL Network was “early in the process,” relative to finding a successor for Bryant Gumbel, who recently resigned his play-by-play duties. The service was assessing what commentators might be available and their contract status.


*Bornstein, who previously headed the total sports network, likened ESPN's Monday Night Football slate to the equivalent schedules cable had received on Sunday nights since the league introduced that package in 1987. He noted it was easier to adapt flexible scheduling  provisions to Sunday Night Football, now presented by NBC.

* Citing Nielsen data, Bornstein said the service counted 43 million subscribers -- reports peg the number somewhere in the low 30 million range. He said NFL Network had 250 million carriage contracts, and had four more to go: Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems and Charter Communications don’t have deals owing to their recalcitrance to pay a 70-cent monthly subscriber fee and provide digital-basic positioning, while Comcast is offering, much to the league’s dismay, the service on a sports tier. Currently, he said discussions were not taking place with Time Warner and that NFL Network, which served notice to the agency last week, would file a "discriminatory and anti-competitive" practices complaint against Comcast next week.

* Asked whether NFL Network would again simulcast its final regular-season game if one of the teams, Dallas or Baltimore, were undefeated in the upcoming campaign, Bornstein replied that scenario wouldn’t  be necessary: “I’m an optimist. We hope to have all our deals done.”

* When it was mentioned that MLB Network would debut early next year in 50 million homes, Bornstein quickly noted that total emanated from ownership stakes by both cable and satellite in the rookie service. He said that trading equity for carriage was “not particularly attractive,” adding that “we don’t want to go there.” But when reminded that  Goodell, during a phone conference last November, said the league would be willing to explore that possibility, the NFL Network leader said he “would not rule anything out.”  

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