Pages From NFL Network’s Local Playbook

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Football season is upon us and NFL Network is laying in more intricate marketing and programming game plans for the upcoming campaign.

The National Football League’s in-house channel, which launched last November, has signed a host of affiliation deals with small and midsized operators and overbuilders in the last few months, and in many cases is working with distributors in leveraging its extensive preseason schedule as a marketing tool to let consumers know that it’s available on digital platforms. The service also expects to maintain a high profile once the regular season begins in September, through a series of ads on the pro football league’s national carriers.

Director of affiliate marketing Jamia Bigalow said more than a dozen cable companies were launching and marketing NFL Network this month, including Charter Communications Inc., Insight Communications Co., Midcontinent Communications, Susquehanna Communications, Bresnan Communications and Buckeye Cable. In addition to DirecTV Inc., a number of overbuilders are on board, including Grande Communications, Qwest Communications International Inc., RCN Corp., Everest, Knology Inc. and WideOpenWest LLC.

All told, the service, which sources say is charging a monthly licensing fee in the 20-cent range, is currently in front of about 23 million cable and satellite homes. What its roster will look in the months ahead remains to be seen.

“There has been a lot of movement with distributors this summer. Football is starting to reach a fever pitch. We’re having conversations with many others and that will continue well into the season,” Bigalow said.

An NFL Network spokesman added, “We’re closing in on one of the 'C’ words. We’re optimistic.”

LOCAL MARKET ACTION

As negotiations continue, NFL Network has kicked off various marketing efforts with a number of affiliates. In addition to cross-channel avails, Bigalow said distributors are using billboards and newspapers, as well as bill-stuffers and direct-mail pieces. “Many are using player images or team logos to help them break through the clutter,” she said.

Others have ramped up their relationships with the network even further, like Everest in Kansas City. There, the overbuilder is engaged in a radio promotion tying in a ticket giveaway to the Chiefs season opener.

In St. Louis, Charter ran a spot flagging the NFL Network as something subscribers would get as part of a $5 upgrade to the MSO’s digital package, along with two tickets for a Rams preseason contest, said Bigalow. Given demand and ticket allotments, Charter pulled the plug on the promo after receiving 200-plus orders in 36 hours, according to Bigalow.

The network will also benefit from national exposure through inventory held by the NFL. Spots will air during regular-season games on CBS, Fox and DirecTV Inc.’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” out-of-market package. In addition, the promos will run on NFL Network itself and on giant in-stadium screens and the league’s Game Day programs.

An NFL Network spokesman said schedules were still being assessed for the playoffs and the Super Bowl. All told, these promos are valued at some $30 million.

VOD AUDIBLES

On the programming side, NFL Network, which began simulcasting a dual HDTV feed on Aug. 1, is also stepping up its game: it will present 54 preseason contests this month and in September, beginning Aug. 13 with the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs. Highlighting those contests is the network’s first-ever produced matchup on Aug. 15, when 16 players and coaches from the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos will wear microphones.

Their utterances and the sounds of the game will constitute the only audio during a one-hour condensed version of the game a week later.

“This will be another example of cable, like HBO, being cutting-edge,” said the spokesman. “Maybe some of these innovations will be drafted by the NFL’s network partners.”

Calling the offerings a “real differentiator for cable,” Bigalow said NFL Network on Mondays during the regular season will serve up exclusive VOD packages, featuring 10-15 minutes of highlights for the area team. “Subscribers will be able to see that incredible hit 1,000 times if they want,” she said, adding that other customized programming, like Super Bowl-related fare about the New England Patriots or shows commemorating John Elway in Denver, would be made available in the appropriate markets.

Bigalow said that where a number of distributors, including Charter, Insight and Buckeye, have the capability, they will offer the VOD highlights package.

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