The Wall Street Journal reported last week the NFL Network might join forces with ESPN Classic to form a more perfect professional football television union.
The fledgling network, much like the Big Ten Network, has fought cable giants with little success to get on expanded basic tiers. NFL Network executives filed an FCC complaint against Comcast, alleging the cable company discriminated against the network for putting Comcast’s own sports channels on expanded basic coverage but not the NFL Network. The matter likely is heading for an FCC showdown.
Nobody disputes the NFL’s No. 1 status among American professional sports leagues. This incident is the first in decades where the NFL didn’t get what it wanted on demand. It’s almost refreshing to see an entity stand up to it.
By pooling resources with ESPN, the NFL Network would solve many of its distribution issues. It may actually improve the network as well. That said, the NFL Network has many positives that hopefully remain in any transition.
The NFL Network rarely uses the wonderful resources of NFL Films, which next to live events is its strongest asset. In June and July, the network is tremendous with old games, past highlights and NFL Films programming. The rest of the year it’s full of too many SportsCenter-esque shows cramming 10 minutes of news in a one-hour set then repeated for 12 hours a day.
Everyone expects the NFL Network to publicize the league and its players. It often goes way over the top when it brings players aboard its access shows but that’s to be expected. It would be interesting to see how a new-look NFL Network would balance a pro-NFL view with ESPN’s quick-twitch journalism style.
In 2006, NFL owners sent eight primetime games to the NFL Network to give it a higher profile and force cable companies to carry it. The plan backfired because over-the-air television stations in NFL markets televise sold-out games featuring their local team when it plays on a cable network. Even if it wanted to, the NFL Network couldn’t hold local fans hostage.
The NFL Network caved on its 2007 season finale when the unbeaten New England Patriots played the New York Giants with 16-0 on the line. With a potentially historic event on the line, the NFL allowed NBC and CBS to broadcast the game.
Unless Comcast, Time-Warner, Mediacom and other cable companies pickup the NFL Network on their basic tiers (which will not happen), the NFL Network walks away a loser under any scenario. Combining with ESPN means it failed. Being relegated to sports tier status also means failure. But the former option is the only viable financial alternative for the NFL Network at this point. It also might make the network even better.