NBC back on the field with Arena Football

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

If at first you fail to genetically engineer the perfect TV sports franchise and revenue-sharing experience, try, try again.
That’s the spirit at NBC Sports, which believes that its recent deal with the Arena Football League will bring young-skewing, fan- and affiliate-friendly sports programming for which it will never have to overbid and advertisers will never have to overpay. NBC expects to see a profit in the first season and to share in the enhanced values of the 16-team league as it expands and its franchises become more valuable.
The network that has walked away from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League because it felt rights fees had become profit-prohibitive also cut its losses at upward of $50 million only one season into its disastrous attempt to create a new football league with the World Wrestling Federation.
Bye-bye, WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, the loudmouth who told Wall Street naysayers to kiss his backside and encouraged the XFL’s scantily clad cheerleaders to hang out with the players-who were billed as masters of mayhem playing “smash-mouth” football.
Hello, AFL Commissioner David Baker (known as “Cupcake” because he says he’s just a cupcake shy of 400 pounds), a soft-spoken man whose players are contractually bound to hang out with fans on the field for a half-hour after each game.
It’s part of the 16-year-old AFL’s Fans’ Bill of Rights, which reads like the Boy Scout promise of everything from role models and “a wholesome environment” in the arena to good food and beverages and prices.
“I think this is the anti-XFL bill of rights,” said John Miller, senior vice president of programming for NBC Sports, who had been scouting the AFL a couple of years before the XFL was announced and who began pitching the league to affiliates several weeks ago.
Local stations will get a better share of the commercial inventory than is standard in sports deals, with details to be worked out after NBC has had a chance to “sit down with a format and a stopwatch” during the AFL’s final summer season. Stations will also get improved positioning on the 22 game Sundays between February and the ArenaBowl on June 22, 2003.
“We will be able to give them inventory in places they’ve never had it before,” Mr. Miller said.
Belo executive and NBC affiliate board Chairman Jack Sander is familiar with the AFL, in which the fields are small (50 yards long), the teams are small (fielding only eight men at a time) and the scores are big (100-point games are normal). “It’s watchable and fast-paced,” Mr. Sander said. He said affiliates will be getting “a real, legitimate product” that will be easier to sell than an assortment of sports specials next winter, when NBC will no longer have the NBA.
Because NBC Sports will pay no rights fee and will have the option every four years after 2005 to renew the deal at the original terms, it literally can’t lose the AFL. And affiliates can be certain they’ll never be asked to pony up ad inventory as compensation to help the network defray escalating rights fees.
Advertisers will have the chance to integrate their brand into the on-air and on-site environments-think signage in turf squares in the arenas for starters. Mr. Miller said NBC’s goal is to sell out all advertising upfront and leave no scatter inventory.
Mr. Baker, whose league sells some 3 million tickets per season, said Ford Trucks and the U.S. Army already are sponsors, and Wilson Sporting Goods is expected to become a national and local sponsor soon.
NBC could also find itself back in business with the NFL if the big league’s owners vote this week to exercise their option to become 49.9 percent owners of the Arena Football League-a move that could make the league even more valuable.