For NFL rights-holders, the clock on the wall reads ‘Miller Time’
Welcome to Ad Age Sports Media Brief Plus, a bonus offering necessitated by the sheer logorrheic overindulgence of this week’s regular column. In today’s one-off, we give a listen to James Andrew Miller, the Bristol insider’s insider, as he handicaps the upcoming NFL rights scramble.
It’s Miller Time
A week before NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp spoke at the Sports Business Daily’s Dealmakers in Sports conference, journalist James Andrew Miller told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch that he sees a big shakeup on the rights horizon. The author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” said he believes that ratings-starved ABC will make a bid for an NFL rights package, before going so far as to suggest that Disney might sacrifice ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” deal in order to bring pro football back to its broadcast airwaves.
“I’ve been saying for years that I think ABC is going to make a play for the NFL,” Miller said during his recent appearance on Deitsch’s podcast. “If it becomes binary and the NFL lets the Walt Disney Co. know that they really want to be on broadcast, then given [Disney CEO] Bob Iger’s feelings about the NFL, I think you’ll see it on ABC rather than them saying, ‘Forget it, if we can’t have it on ESPN, we won’t have it anywhere.’”
While Miller is famously well-sourced, we respectfully disagree with his Mouse House forecast. While ESPN’s direct-to-consumer offering is picking up steam, there isn’t a Slurpee’s chance in Hell that Disney will risk submarining ESPN’s Brobdingnagian $9.06/sub/month affiliate fee in order to buttress ABC’s weak deliveries. Look instead for Bob Iger’s brain trust to hash out a simulcast deal that at once expands the NFL’s reach while maintaining ESPN’s indispensable NFL portfolio.
As much as we quibble with Miller’s assessment, his conversation with Deitsch is well worth your time, especially if you’re in the mood for Bristol intrigue. While discussing the ABC/ESPN scenario, Miller notes that former ESPN President John Skipper would have punted on an NFL renewal if he’d had his way. “Skipper … didn’t want the NFL again,” Miller said. “It was the biggest bone of contention between Bristol and Burbank. He thought it was ridiculous to spend $2 billion a year basically on 17 games. He wanted to use that money elsewhere. He also didn’t like the perceived handcuffs that came with the NFL in terms of the enterprise journalism that he wanted to do and the activist journalism he wanted to do.”
Miller also suggested that incumbent NFL partner CBS may face an uphill climb in securing a renewal for its Sunday afternoon package. “One of the other things that’s going to be very interesting is, particularly given Les Moonves’ departure from the scene and the great relationship that he had not only with [Patriots owner] Robert Kraft but with the NFL TV committee, that CBS schedule, boy, that’s ripe pickings,” Miller said. “I think ABC’s going to be after that, [and] who knows, maybe NBC. I think it’s going to be a very, very active, very, very provocative negotiations that we’re going to enter into.”
CBS in February said that it will do whatever’s necessary to hold onto its NFL rights showcase. And it stands to reason that CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus will make a convincing argument, Moonves be damned. For one thing, he’s Sean McManus. For another thing, CBS’s national window is second only to Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” broadcast in terms of its ability to generate massive ratings for the league. (A week after Miller spoke to Deitsch, CBS’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast of the Bills-Cowboys game averaged 32.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched regular-season contest in three years.)
Side note: Miller’s latest media exposé, “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency,” is now available in paperback. Also: Fans of Deitsch’s podcast should check out his latest effort, which features a wide-ranging interview with the delightfully foul-mouthed Joe Buck. “Nothing creates a buzz like a guy on network TV saying bad words on a podcast,” Buck jokes, shortly after darkening your day with a certain malodorous Proto-Germanic borrowing. (The sportscaster, who indefatigably roots against your team whenever he’s behind the mic, first indulges in the pottymouth at about the three-minute mark of yesterday’s pod.)
But wait, there’s more!
Just days after Super Bowl LIV is scheduled to kick off in Miami, the NFL will file a petition with the Supreme Court of These Here You-nited States that, as The Hollywood Reporter’s legal eagle Eriq Gardner writes, couldhave “major implications for the television industry.”
The league’s overture to the highest court in the land comes after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this summer effectively resurrected a class-action lawsuit concerning DirecTV’s out-of-market Sunday Ticket package, which suggests that the NFL’s oversight of the TV rights deals for its 32 franchises is in violation of antitrust laws. As Gardner notes, the NFL effectively was given an exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act when Congress passed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961. But in reviving the DirecTV class-action suit, the Ninth Circuit may have jeopardized the NFL’s longstanding broadcast model, an arrangement that currently generates some $5.7 billion per year from the TV networks alone.
At the risk of venturing much further into the morass of legalese, a precedent established by the 1984 ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents could prove to be a bone in the throat for the NFL. In a letter sent last week to Justice Elena Kagan, the league asked the Supremes to help preserve the status quo, on the grounds that the particulars of the ’84 decision do not apply to it: “Unlike the NCAA, the NFL is a highly integrated joint venture that produces an entertainment product—the on-the-field competition of NFL Football—which the NFL then distributes to consumers through broadcast television and other means.”
If you’re like us, and you can’t distinguish between a tort and a plate of tortellini, suffice it to say that the NFL hopes to eliminate this threat to its remarkable hegemony before it renegotiates its TV rights deals. (And there’s a collective bargaining agreement with the players that still needs to be hashed out.) For those of you who are well-versed in the Perry Mason shuck-and-jive, the full text of the NFL’s petition to the court may be found here.
Bonus Social Disease
After yet another nationally-televised Cowboys loss, things are decidedly not going well in Jerry World.