As its teams prepare for the 2009 season, the National Football League had a very busy off-season of its own, from a media perspective.
Coming off the most-watched championship game ever, as the Pittsburgh Steelers' last-second triumph over the Arizona Cardinals tackled a Super Bowl record 98.7 million watchers on average on Feb. 1, the NFL Draft also yielded record viewership for ESPN and NFL Network last April. Now, the league is moving the player selection event into primetime in 2010.
NBC also saw the retirement of the doyen of announcers, the venerable John Madden. That resulted in Cris Collinsworth moving alongside Al Michaels on Sunday Night Football and in an opening for an analyst on NFL Network's primetime coverage. The position was filled by Matt Millen.
But it was a bevy of rights deals — and one on the carriage side for NFL Network — that gained the most attention this off-season.
In March, the NFL secured a $4 billion, multiyear extension with DirecTV under which the satellite-TV provider has retained exclusivity for its “NFL Sunday Ticket” out-of-market package from 2011 through 2013. (NBC and the NFL announced a deal extension last week through 2013 as well.) In May, the gold standard of sports leagues was able to secure rights increases, albeit small ones — in the 1% to 2% range — over the $712 million and $622 million Sunday-afternoon rights-holders Fox and CBS had been paying, respectively, each year.
More importantly, the combination of deals enabled NFL Network to begin selling NFL RedZone, a popular feature of Sunday Ticket, as a standalone channel to other affiliates this season.
“This is the first new product we've been able to take to market in the last few years,” NFL Network CEO Steve Bornstein said of the NFL RedZone channel, set to kick off Sept. 13.
The service, promotion for which began on Aug. 14, will provide fans with a look at the most exciting moments on Sundays, showcasing touchdowns, highlights and live look-ins in high-definition. Hosted by NFL Network reporter Scott Hanson and produced and edited by NFL Network from a newly constructed studio at its Los Angeles headquarters, it will switch viewers from game to game as teams drive inside the 20-yard line, the so-called red zone, giving the audience a chance to see every important play.
Published reports have put NFL RedZone's monthly license fee at around 25 cents per subscriber.
The availability of the NFL RedZone service was expected to serve as a fulcrum for NFL Network to reopen negotiations with a number of recalcitrant carriers that had kept the league's in-house channel on the sidelines over price and positioning issues.
So, too, was a deal in May with Comcast, which had been engaged in long-standing litigation that resulted in actions in both New York State Supreme Court and the Federal Communications Commission. The parties' original contract had expired on April 30.
With NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts personally involved in the negotiations, the nation's largest distributor, under the new pact, moved NFL Network on Aug. 1 to Digital Classic, its second most widely penetrated package with 10.8 million subscribers, from a sports tier. The resultant tally: Almost 9 million more subscribers via Comcast and nearly 50 million in total for the pro football league's in-house service.
Roberts, during the call announcing the new deal, said Comcast would position NFL RedZone on its sports tier. The operator will offer the channel as part of its Sports Entertainment Package.
Asked if the NFL Network can only offer RedZone on sports tiers to limit ratings exposure against Sunday-afternoon carriers Fox and CBS, Bornstein replied, “Operators tend to see it as an opportunity to drive their digital sports tier.”
NFL Network had hoped the Comcast agreement — the multiyear deal reportedly carries escalating monthly license fees that begin in the low 40-cents-per-subscriber range — would serve as a template for other deals with distribution holdouts.
But as of press time, NFL Network had not yet scored any new deals, even though its affiliate team is going through two-a-days of sorts.
“We're in discussions with many carriers about our various assets,” Bornstein said of NFL Network, RedZone and NFL Network video-on-demand content. “There are discussions with providers we already have affiliate agreements with for RedZone and with those that we are not yet affiliated with.”
Time Warner Cable and Suddenlink Communications, which had previously balked at NFL Network's insistence on digital-basic carriage and a monthly license reportedly more than 70 cents per subscriber, confirmed that they were in distribution discussions with NFL Network. However, officials at the operators would not characterize the status of the negotiations or offer a progress report.
Cablevision Systems declined to comment. But CEO James Dolan has declared in the past that the predominant New York cable operator would not carry NFL Network unless Cablevision could offer the Sunday Ticket package.
Although talks had stalled over the past few seasons, Bornstein, who notes that NFL Network has concluded hundreds of deals with distributors, is sanguine that more carriage paydirt lies ahead with those that have been on the sidelines.
“It's great product. We want as many people to get it as possible. I'm optimistic we can get things done with cable, satellite and telco providers. We want it to be win-win-win for NFL Network, distributors and our fans.
Another facet of the Sunday Ticket renewal affords the satellite provider the opportunity to sell a broadband equivalent to consumers who couldn't get the service or have poor exposure to the video signal.
“It's for people who can't get satellite,” Bornstein said. “On the surface, it doesn't seem that complicated, but there are authentication and technical issues that must be addressed.”
Officials indicate the No. 1 satellite operator will walk before it runs with Direct NFL Sunday Ticket broadband — it will only be offered in Manhattan during the 2009-10 season, before it is rolled out nationally in the 2010-11 campaign. The upcoming test will be available to residents of the New York City borough who cannot receive DirecTV due to building restrictions or line-of-sight issues, according to a spokesman.
On-air, there are several new pages in NFL Network's playbook. First: the channel is presenting all 65 of the league's preseason games for the first time. Moreover, they are available in high-definition format for the first time as well.
NFL Network's eight-game primetime slate, which kicks off on Thursday, Nov. 12, with coach Mike Singletary's San Francisco 49ers hosting the team for which he became a hall of fame linebacker, the Chicago Bears, will feature Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound and some other technical enhancements, according to Bornstein.
The schedule is highlighted by a Thanksgiving-night contest between the New York Giants and Denver Broncos; the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers on Dec. 10 against their AFC North rival, the Cleveland Browns; and Dallas Cowboys-Saints in New Orleans on Dec. 19. There are also two games matching 2008-09 playoff teams: Miami Dolphins-Carolina Panthers on Nov. 19 and San Diego Chargers-Tennessee Titans on Christmas night.
Millen, who has announced for CBS and Fox, will join play-by-play man Bob Papa on the calls.
“I'm excited. After all, I recruited him,” Bornstein joked. “Matt's a terrific broadcaster. He will bring different perspectives to the booth.” [Millen had been president of the woeful Detroit Lions]. NFL Network will share Millen's services with ESPN, which had hired the former player and broadcaster.
NFL Network is also revamping some of its other key programming, including the expansion of its NFL GameDay Morning. The program will double to four hours and get a jump on genre offerings from Fox, CBS and ESPN by starting at 9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT.
“It's what NFL Network should be doing, serving an audience primed for Sunday's games,” said Bornstein.
The service will also play Monday-morning quarterback — actually the show will air a bit later in the week — to Playbook, the Xs and Os series that premieres Thursdays and Fridays.
“We'll come back on Tuesday or Wednesday with Brian Billick,” said Bornstein. “It will be a scorecard in which we can see how we did. It should make for interesting TV.”