Cable May Score More Football

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

There’s been a lot of talk about “Monday Night Football” going to cable. But why stop there? How about the Super Bowl?

Longtime observers of the television sports business speculate that while The Walt Disney Co. huddles with the National Football League, ESPN would like to go deep and get a crack at the Super Bowl.

“ESPN is working very hard to get the exclusive rights to a top sports event so they can now say they are the equal of any of the broadcast networks,” said Neil Pilson, a consultant and former president of CBS Sports.

One source indicated that when it was negotiating to maintain its rights to the college football Bowl Championship

Series last year, ABC/ESPN wanted to put the championship game on cable. That may have been one reason the BCS wound up on Fox.

That few blink at the prospect of an institution like “Monday Night Football” moving to cable shows how far cable has come. So does dreaming of a major sports championship.

But there’s still a ways to go. One broadcast network executive scoffed at the notion that the Super Bowl could go to cable. For one thing, government officials would most likely scream at the idea of the game not being available to every household.

The NFL might throw a flag as well. “The league is very conscious and very interested in keeping as many games available to as many people as possible,” one NFL insider said.

“Ratings will decline 20 percent, and it’s no longer going to be the national phenomenon that is an unofficial American holiday,” one broadcast network executive said.

While cable is available in more than 90 million homes, there are 109.6 million TV households in America, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Ball in Disney’s Court

So what will happen to football? Nothing is likely to happen until Disney decides what to do with “Monday Night Football” on ABC and “Sunday Night Football” on ESPN. It doesn’t have to do anything until October, and some expect it to wait that long. Disney already knows what the NFL expects to get for a renewal, based on the 40 percent increases Fox and CBS paid last year.

But the persistent buzz is that Disney wants to move “Monday Night Football” to its more profitable outlet, ESPN.

At least one television sports expert could see the idea working.

“I think there’s still a gloss and aura to “Monday Night Football,” said Mr. Pilson. “On ESPN it would enhance its prestige and its credibility.”

Because ESPN gets $2.40 per subscriber per month on top of ad sales, the NFL would look for a good-size increase in rights for “MNF.” And if ESPN were to hold out for some type of cable football exclusivity, it could cost close to $1 billion. (An exception would be made for the NFL Network.) With other cable networks banned, the Sunday night package and the new late-season Thursday and Saturday package the NFL is floating would have to find broadcast homes.

Moving “MNF” to ESPN would affect how much ad revenue Disney pulls in. The games would draw a lower rating on ESPN. “You take any event and put it on cable and it’s going to get a lower rating,” said Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing at media buyer OMD. “If you put `Sunday Night Football’ on ABC, you’re going to get the `Monday Night’ rating.”

He said “MNF” is no longer an event because free agency has made it much harder to predict good matchups. Moving “Monday Night Football” to Sunday would boost that package’s ratings because it would be easier to shift attractive games from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the same day than it is to shift them from Sunday to Monday.

Mr. McGovern noted that both prime-time NFL franchises already command premium costs-per-thousand. ESPN commands a premium because of a scarcity of inventory. It gives a large number of spots to cable operators, who pay big fees to carry the network.

But there’s a big gap between the CPMs ABC gets on Monday night and the CPMs ESPN gets on Sunday night, he said. That would indicate that Disney would pull in significantly less ad revenue for “Monday Night Football” on ESPN. And because ESPN over the past 12 months has signed new affiliation deals with most cable operators, it’s not clear how it would generate any more subscriber revenue.

But as the NFL insider said, “The ball’s in Disney’s court,” and if Disney passes, “there’s no shortage of interested parties.”

“I think the NFL is the source of most of these rumors. They’re trying to create a market for themselves,” said one network executive.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the possibilities.

Disney might switch “Sunday Night Football” from ESPN to ABC, in which case ABC would move “Desperate Housewives.”

Or, in the event Disney drops “Sunday Night Football,” word on the street is that Fox and CBS would want to split that package. But that word may not have gotten to CBS and Fox, where some executives say they already have all the football they can handle.

“They’re already losing $150 million annually. You’re going to ask each network to lose another $100 million. I don’t understand why either network would want that,” said a network executive.

On the cable side, Turner is waiting to jump in. Also mentioned as interested have been USA, Spike and Comcast, which might want to put football on its Outdoor Life Network, or start a new national sports channel. Rupert Murdoch has long wanted to start a national sports channel to compete with ESPN, but he wouldn’t try it without football.

New Sports Channel?

And someone is out there floating the idea of starting a channel that would have the rights to the NFL for its fall programming and NASCAR during the rest of the year. NASCAR’s rights deal with Fox runs through 2008, but its deal with NBC and Turner expires in 2006. What would air Monday through Friday is anyone’s guess.

It may sound far-fetched, but the NFL insider suggested that those who can’t see past a simple renewal of current deals don’t understand how the landscape is being changed by technology.

“In the broadcast era, `Monday night Football’ was revolutionary. Then came cable and Sunday Ticket on DirecTV,” he said. “Now there’s a digital future with all sorts of different possibilities out there.”

The idea is that content is king, and sports content appears to be a sure thing.

The NFL has been vigilant about guarding its valuable content. Last month, league owners voted to shut down local channels partly owned by the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons. Programming a linear channel is expensive, and video-on-demand appears to be a better model, the league insider said.

“Do you need the coach’s show to repeat 12 times, or is it better to live on VOD and let someone go to it when they want it?” he asked.

Besides, the teams have a large investment in the NFL Network to protect.

In the meantime, until football season starts, the pigskin pastime will continue to be guessing where on the dial games will land. But in the end, on observer noted, one thing is certain: “It’s all going to get resolved and the NFL is going to get its money.”