By Bob Keisser
Special to TelevisionWeek
On the eve of the 2005 season the NFL Network continues to set records as the fastest start-up in the history of the cable-satellite era. The cable network will start the 2005 season available in 58 million homes and with 28 million subscribers and expects to top 30 million subs before Super Bowl XL is played in February.
There’s an old, little-known story about the NFL that may explain why the NFL Network has performed like television’s rookie of the year, has broken the mold for modern-day TV networks and continues to gain speed like Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick running downhill with the entire defensive wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in pursuit.
Two decades ago, when ESPN was still a toddler and cable’s future was still a matter of conjecture, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and a few of his more forward-thinking owners sat down to discuss the cost and value of purchasing space on a communications satellite and launching the NFL’s own network.
The league was feeling robust. It had plenty of money coming in from its usual television-related sources and the ad market was already convinced the NFL had supplanted Major League Baseball as the country’s national passion. Yet Mr. Rozelle and his colleagues were looking forward to new opportunities in a burgeoning industry.
All these years and untold communication satellites later, the NFL Network is essentially the same product that league officials pondered years ago-albeit tweaked to a high-definition sheen with aggressive, out-of-the-box programming ideas, and without having to shoot a rocket into space.
And it is a fast-moving product too. Its place in the cable universe has virtually lapped every other notable sports start-up of the 21st century, having reached a point that took other respected networks five years to reach. The Golf Channel took five years to reach 26 million, and Speed Channel, buoyed by the NASCAR explosion, took five years to reach 33 million. The eras are much different, but the NFL Network’s growth pace has been faster than that of cable icons ESPN and MTV.
It also recently topped its 70th distribution deal, the latest with Verizon, which includes the hot-button tech advance of this generation, video-on-demand. It also has deals with four of the top five cable operators-Comcast, Cox, Charter and Adelphia-whose executives acknowledge the NFL Network has changed their approach to start-ups.
“We’ve shot the lights out on every matrix we used to evaluate success,” said Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of the NFL Network, who knows something about unabated growth from his days as CEO of ESPN.
“We’ve gone a lot faster than I ever anticipated. We came on the air literally six months after the owners agreed to launch in March of 2003. We were on the air in November, and earned Emmy nominations four months later.
“Everything is way ahead of what we expected. We’re fast approaching 30 million [subscriber] homes. Our distribution has been way ahead of anything we considered, and we were pretty optimistic cable companies would be interested. Our ad support has already undergone a complete personality change.”
The attention and respect paid by the cable operators has been especially trendsetting. Over the past five years, new network start-ups all began life the same way-they launched on satellite (DirecTV, DISH Network) and patiently negotiated space on cable systems, most often on pay tiers at the back-end of the channel lineup. It was like paying your dues.
The NFL Network launched with a nice push from DirecTV and its 11 million subs. But clearly the network has broken barriers, and the next round of contract negotiations between the NFL and cable operators could lead many to push the network alongside ESPN on a basic tier.
A survey earlier this year by the Jack Myers Report noted that 44 percent of advertisers and media agencies responding to its survey ranked the NFL Network first out of 48 networks as the outlet with the greatest potential to meet their advertising needs.
“When we started, 75 percent of our ad support was made up of official NFL sponsors, companies that have been with the league for a long time,” Mr. Bornstein said. “Now that group is in the minority. As we exceeded our distribution plans, a lot of new ad sales came along with it.”
Not even the most cerebral critic would have commented five years ago that the NFL needed something else to boost its image and increase its power base in sports. The league has been an 800-pound gorilla for a long time. So this is proof that there’s always an upside for a company even when everything has been up, up, and away for some time. The NFL Network drives home the point that sports isn’t necessarily seasonal. NFL teams do not play 162 games a year like baseball’s Red Sox and Cardinals. The entire NFL schedule, if compressed, would barely fill one month of a calendar.
If one truly believed the NFL has 24/7/365 appeal, then the fan market was being underserved, and the opportunities were endless as long as NFL Network executives could find quality content and enough of it-which they did. In some cases, the content has been exceedingly simple.
The league had an extremely large inventory of events that, with the exception of the NFL draft-a favorite of ESPN, were largely hidden from view. The Super Bowl, for example, is much more than one game on a Sunday in January. It is a two-week extravaganza of events and parties, all with marketing value.
The annual Scouting Combine in February-your basic audition for draft-eligible players-was possibly the biggest secret in sports until the NFL Network decided to devote a week’s worth of coverage, from the actual testing to a slew of analysis and interviews.
Ticket buyers might not like having to pay regular-season prices for preseason games, but the common fan is truly interested in following the progress of rookie quarterbacks like No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith of the 49ers or Giants sophomore Eli Manning. The NFL had this inventory of games, and it has filled its July and August slate by airing every game that wasn’t allocated to the networks.
The network introduced “No Huddle” during its preseason coverage this year, which is basically a whip-around show that visits a half-dozen or so live games, a virtual ultimate studio highlight show, but live and long form, that one wishes existed during the regular season.
“We keep saying there is no off-season anymore, and we took that attitude to our programming,” said Eric Weinberger, the network’s coordinating producer. “Each team has its own minicamps in advance of training camp. There’s the combine and draft. I think fans are just as interested in this down time as they are during the season, because they want to know what’s going on with their team.
“We’re football fans, so we bring that attitude to our programming. If it’s something we’d like to see, it’s probably something other fans would like to see.”
The network has also covered the league’s annual meetings; a full schedule of NFL Europe Games; the precamp Rookie Symposium; the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony; the full NFL draft; and a replay of the commercials that ran during the Super Bowl.
When the network launched, a key selling point was its relationship with the vast inventory of NFL Films. The inventory remains a staple, but the network has already expanded well beyond the excellent library of Steve Sabol.
“The approach is similar to what we had at ESPN,” Mr. Bornstein said. “ESPN was the first to broadcast sports outside of the Saturday and Sunday windows of the networks. We’re reaching out the same way, expanding what a fan can see. ESPN showed us sports was a 24/7 phenomenon.
“So our attitude is to ask, ‘Where can we take the fan that he’s never gone before? What does the fan want to know?'”
The hub of the programming schedule is “Total Access,” the nightly
studio show that this year will expand to 90 minutes per night and add several new names to the cast, including future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. But rather than mimic what “SportsCenter” does best, Mr. Weinberger is tailoring the show around issues and information and not just headlines.
“We’re trying to make it more conversational,” he said. “We use more former players to make it an informed show with perspective. They’ll be critical when they need to be, but we want them to come at their comments from the view of what it’s like for the current players.
“The easiest thing for someone to do is debate the Terrell Owens situation [the Eagles receiver wants a new contract and has bickered with coaches and teammates] and conclude whether he’s a good or bad guy. I think more people want to know how his situation affects the team. How it affects his relationship with his teammates, what it might be like in the locker room. We have analysts who have been in situations like this and their perspective is the kind of thing we rarely hear about.”
The preseason slate gave the network the chance to try a new segment, “Inside Training Camp,” which features extensive coverage of the training camps of eight teams with live press conferences by coaches and players. It drives home the point that there’s more to a week in the NFL than the game and could become a regular-season feature down the road.
The network last season introduced “Coachspeak,” a three-hour Monday whip-around show that debuted last year and will be expanded to a weekly second day, Wednesday, this season. It has also added personnel to “Playbook,” which emphasizes the Xs and Os of the game and features analyst Sterling Sharpe, and will debut “Six Days to Sunday,” a look inside the weekly preparations of an individual NFL player or coach as he prepares for the next game. It’s the expansion of a feature NFL Films formerly produced for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”
That reference brings up a question that has been asked since the network debuted-will the NFL Network ever become home for regular-season games? It was especially relevant since one piece of the new round of TV contracts, an eight-game package of Thursday and Saturday games, has yet to be sold.
But as logical as it may seem to add a few regular-season games and take the network to a higher level-and to add a “No Huddle” segment to its Sunday schedule, which for now is virtually all stats and radio highlights while games are being played-the reality is the network may not need regular-season games to reach its goals.
The advertisers who signed deals in the first year are already ecstatic over the growth, and the league will reap greater profits when those deals come up for renewal. Increasing distribution also seems like a lock, especially as the nation goes digital and channel space becomes less of a factor. Inside of two years any system that doesn’t have the NFL Network may be at a competitive disadvantage.
The growing value of VOD is a whole new dimension of the industry that could break the stereotype of what is considered success. The NFL Network’s VOD offerings-10-minute national highlights packages and packages tailored for individual NFL markets-are already ranked No. 1 in this niche.
“The tentpoles of the NFL television philosophy is to make sure local games are seen in their entirety [by the greatest audience],” Mr. Bornstein said. “It’s an important part of building fan affinity and support, and you do not want to compete against the basic broadcast packages. So I’m not sure there’s a reason to change that.
“We’ve proven there is a demand and an appetite for this everything-but-the-games kind of programming,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to back away. We’re delivering the information and the programming that goes around the games, and I think we’ve already learned that we’ve become the place fans go. That’s not going to change if we carry games. We have a product that already resonates well for all of us.”