SBJ Media and Tech conference dives into NFL Network battle
By Ken Kerschbaumer and Andrew Lippe
The NFL Network and its difficulties in getting widespread carriage was front and center at the Sports Business Journal Media and Technology conference held this week in New York City.
Sean McManus, CBS Sports and News president, was a highlight at the event, discussing all things NFL, from the strength of the property (“I have maintained for a long time that the most important broadcast window in the NFL is the late game on Sunday afternoon”) to the challenges facing the NFL Network and restrictions the league has placed on sideline access.
“We have limited access on the sidelines, and our internet rights have been a bit more restricted but not to the extent where we feel it hurts our product,” he says.
Limited availability of the NFL Network, as cable operators like Time Warner Cable refuse to strike a deal, and the potential for Congress to intercede on behalf of the NFL Network, is also on McManus’ mind. “If Congress gets enough calls they will do something,” adds McManus.
But Adam Silver, NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO, says getting to the point of government intervention could be bad news for all involved because other issues, like ala carte pricing, could gain additional traction. “These disputes should be worked out from the inside,” he says. “For all programmers the greatest fear is mandatory ala Carte pricing. And if that happens the NFL and other leagues have the most to lose. So it is a risky strategy to ask congress to weigh in on a narrow issue and hope they don’t expand their involvement.”
The central challenge for the NFL Network is demands for per-subscriber payments from cable companies that are out of whack with the perceived value, especially as the most alluring aspect of the package for operators is eight exclusive NFL game telecasts.
The NBA, on the other hand, has looked to improve the price value equation by delivering 100 NBA games, 300 WNBA and international games and now Developmental League games. “It provides excellent value to our consumers,” says Silver. In addition, it helps drive viewers to NBA content on TNT and ESPN.
David Levy, president of Turner Sports, however, says the league-owned networks are a challenge to traditional sports network models because, at the end of the day, they drive up the cost of sports properties.
“All networks deserve distribution but from our standpoint when they grow they become competitors for ratings, advertising and subscription rates,” he says. “And then there are more people there to bid up properties.”
Jeff Shell, president of the Comcast Programming Group, says the NFL is carving out a small percentage of its schedule in an attempt to charge hundreds of millions of dollars to cable operators. “It does seem like what they want is out of whack given the current market,” he says. “There’s no question there is value to eight games but how much is it? It comes back to price value and, eventually, the market will work itself out.”