NFL Network ended 2007 still fighting the nation's largest cable multiple-system operators for carriage, and alienating some existing affiliates by agreeing to share its biggest exclusive game of the year — the New England Patriots' Dec. 29 victory over the New York Giants — with CBS and NBC.
Affiliate RCN, for one, complained that the National Football League was effectively “making RCN customers pay extra for what others are getting for free.”
But the news wasn't all bad for the National Football League-owned channel and its affiliates. Some of those providers ended the year pleased with double-digit subscriber gains, attributed to consumer desire to see the network's games and to high-profile marketing support from the league.
Naturally enough, the marketing support revolved around attendance at NFL games.
In November, the network provided game-based sweepstakes prizes to affiliates. Among the local affiliates exploiting the contest were GVTC Communications, a telephone cooperative providing triple-play service to rural areas just north of San Antonio, Texas; and Austin-based Grande Communications, which competes head-to-head with NFL Network carriage holdout Time Warner Cable.
Other participating affiliates included Hargray Communications, serving the Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Cox Communications systems in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
From Nov. 1 to Nov. 20, subscribers in these systems, except for Hargray, had a chance to win two tickets to the Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers contest on Nov. 29. That game ended up as NFL Network's highest-rated exclusive national game, as both teams had 10-1 won-loss records heading into the contest. Dallas won, 37-27. The network attracted 10.1 million viewers to the contest, more than double the number (4.5 million) it drew for the Patriots-Giants game, because the latter game was simulcast on CBS and NBC.
Winners received VIP access to the Cowboys practice field the day before the game, field passes for game day and could watch the game in Jerry Jones' private suite. Jones took pictures with the sweepstakes winners, letting them model one of his Super Bowl rings for the shots.
The contest sparked phenomenal sales, said Grande chief service officer Chad Jones, though he declined to offer precise figures for the month. The local promotion was vital to the response: Jones held a press conference about the contest at GVTC's headquarters, prompting local media coverage. “We had people signing up just for” the contest, Jones said.
“The most important thing we got out of this was name recognition,” said Bruce Forey, communications specialist with GVTC. “We got a surge of phone calls the day of the press conference” announcing the promotion.
Unfortunately, many of the callers lived outside of the cooperative's service area.
Despite that, though, GVTC had a 37% increase in sell-in in November compared to October. That was 16% better than October a year ago, Forey said. Of the new sales, 57% bought a bundle of services from GVTC.
In South Carolina, Hargray got its own promotion: a Nov. 4 to Nov. 29 sweepstakes for two tickets to a Carolina Panthers game in Jacksonville, Fla., with pregame VIP party passes and field passes during game warm-ups.
“The creative [for the network promotion] was well above and beyond my budget,” said Eddie Andrews, marketing director for the 80,000-subscriber operator. The quality marketing materials make Hargray look like one of the big guys, he said.
Hargray saw its gross acquisitions double for the month. Andrews said he's excited by the possibility of year-round promotional opportunities with the network.
NFL Network chief operating officer Kim Williams said the channel will do year-round marketing, tied to events such as the NFL Scouting Combine, where collegiate stars run drills as they are vetted in advance of the NFL Draft; the draft itself; and training camps.
The network is designing campaigns to help affiliates with their local goals, whether it's digital acquisition, stealing subscribers from a competitor or selling bundled services, she said.
“It's important to the network, and to me as a person, that our partners are successful. We want strong renewals,” Williams said.
“Local promotions are the heart of our strategy,” Williams said.
RCN took part, as well, with passes to the big final game as a lure.
The competitive provider gave 12 tickets to the Dec. 29 Patriots-Giants game in East Rutherford, N.J., to two subscribers who entered the sweepstakes. The tickets went to two customers in Queens, N.Y., where RCN competes with Time Warner Cable.
Derek Brown of Astoria won eight tickets to a VIP suite at Giants Stadium, where the Patriots become the first NFL team to go undefeated in the regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Runner-up Elissa Janofsky of Forest Hills won four tickets.