NFL Network Tackled By Backlash Over Packers-Cowboys Game

Even Fans in Austin Couldn't See the Game at Home

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The NFL prompted a national debate over its decision to air last Thursday's Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys game exclusively on the NFL Network, a cable channel that reaches about a third as many homes as ESPN given major providers like Comcast, Cablevision, Charter and Time Warner Cable don't carry it.
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. Credit: AP

Like canceling Christmas
NPR's Frank Deford said last week that the right for every man to watch any NFL game in the privacy of his own living room was "as American as waterboarding."

Mike Nardi, a Packer fan from Escanaba, Michigan, summed up the sacrilege succinctly in a comment to Upper Peninsula, Michigan-based newspaper "The Mining Journal," "I would think it is like saying there will be no deer season or no Christmas."

But for marketers who could have gotten a bigger piece of what will likely be the most-watched football game on cable this year, there's even more at stake. ESPN, a fully-carried cable network reaching 90 million homes, broke ratings records last fall when its coverage of the New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons match-up scored a 9.9 household rating, the second-most-watched cable event ever, with 12.3 million total viewers.

By contrast, the NFL Network, which is only carried in 35 million homes, recently earned a 5.0 rating for its broadcast of the Atlanta Falcons-Indianapolis Colts game. And that's not even counting the not insignificant number of fans who had to watch it in bars, bowling alleys and other out-of-home venues Nielsen doesn't track. AT&T lobbyists in Austin, Texas, rented out a theater for all 181 state legislators and their families to watch the game since the Austin market didn't have access to the NFL Network.

'Fans missing out'
Seth Palansky, a spokesperson for NFL Network, said it would make for a better sell for advertisers to have a more specific estimate of just how many people are tuning in to the games. "If I'm an advertiser, I would think I'm pleased I bought NFL Network. It kind of goes counter to what you try to do, which is try to account for audience for ratings purposes."

Sam Sussman, senior VP-sports investment at Starcom, who had several clients in Thursday's game, said, "It's the fans that are missing out. The advertisers go in with their eyes open and know what they're buying into. ... Whether it's 35 million homes versus 90 million homes vs. a broadband application that's a lot smaller in scale, [it's OK] if the content's right and you're reaching the right consumers."

But don't blame the cable operators for not picking up the NFL Network. Mr. Palansky said its strategy is to maintain its independent streak. Like Major League Baseball, which held on to its content for several years before giving up its equity to the major cable operators' sports tiers, the network only wants to deal with operators who don't own their own sports channels. Time Warner Cable, for example, was able to air the game in Dallas and Green Bay, Wis., on its sports tier, but other key markets, such as San Antonio and Corpus Christi, were shut out.

'Below the belt'
The NFL is also in litigation in the New York Supreme Court with Comcast over its move of NFL Network to its sports tier without consent or contractual right. "That's sort of the way cable treats you," Mr. Palansky said. "If they don't like it, they say, 'Screw you.' It's been a 30-year process."

But the NFL also sparked furor among many operators by waiting until Monday night to officially announce that the Packers-Cowboys game would air exclusively on NFL Network, and could not air on any of the major operators' local affiliates. "That's so far below the belt," said one executive for a major cable operator.

When cable operators did agree to carry the NFL Network, the relationship ran afoul due to placement disputes. Both Charter and Comcast lost the NFL Network after tying it into their sports tier, while the NFL called Time Warner's offer of a pay-per-view deal that would allow them to name their price and keep 100% revenue "a gimmick."

No change soon
A Time Warner Cable spokesperson said, "We think our customers fully understand that [the NFL] took these games away and they recognize the fact that we're trying to hold our customers' questions on the line. ... This is not just about Time Warner Cable, this is about the NFL taking away games and trying to extract more money from Americans."

And for the marketers who are buying into the network, the opportunity to have a larger Nielsen rating point likely won't be changing much in 2008. Mr. Palansky doesn't expect the League's position on the sports tiers to change any time soon, nor can he predict the timing on the Comcast litigation. "The real point is, it's not the network that the game's on, it's the content that you have and clearly NFL content is as watched as anything on TV," he said.
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