The hypocritical NFL, NFL fights cable companies over NFL Network access, NFL Sunday Ticket on cable

The hypocritical NFL

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A recent article in the Los Angeles Times really irked me. It’s about the NFL’s battle with the cable companies to get the NFL Network into their lineup.

At issue is the financial viability of that network, which on Thanksgiving Day will broadcast the first in its exclusive eight-game package. While the channel now reaches about 43 million homes, the league says it needs -- and deserves -- at least 70 million. And that means winning space in basic digital cable packages.

Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Charter, however, are balking at the NFL's demand to be paid about 70 cents per subscriber for such carriage. That is more than popular cable channels such as CNN fetch -- a bold demand, cable operators say, from a network that offers eight live games each season.

It is "no accident," [Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry] Jones said, that the NFL Network's schedule has NFC powerhouse Dallas hosting the resurgent Packers on Nov. 29.

"Certainly, that game being on our network was important to us," Jones said. The fact that most NFL fans around the country won't see it, he adds, "makes it pretty obvious that the cable companies don't care about providing the best possible programming."

Brett FavreNow isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black? The same league that left millions of subscribers out in the cold by offering up Sunday Ticket to the highest bidder (which continues to be DirecTV, as the satellite provider probably wouldn’t survive without it) is now criticizing the cable companies for balking at high carriage fees for the NFL Network and even has the audacity to say that the cable companies are not interested in providing the best possible programming. (That deal with DirecTV goes through 2010, by the way.)

Regarding the Sunday Ticket debacle, part of the blame goes to the cable companies for trying to fix something that isn’t broken. When the package was up for auction a few years ago, they battled with the NFL about how to present the games. The cable companies want to sell the games individually while the NFL wants all the games included in one big package. As anyone with Sunday Ticket would tell you, the current package that includes all the games is the way to go. There’s no better way to burn a Sunday afternoon than to flip from dramatic ending to dramatic ending, especially if the game you sat down to watch becomes a blowout.

It’s a bit mysterious why the cable companies took that position considering they already have the NBA League Pass, which allows viewers to switch from game to game. So it’s good enough for the NBA but not for the NFL? I don’t get it.

Still, it’s the NFL’s fault for making Sunday Ticket exclusive. The league claims that it wants its fans to have access to every game, but their actions speak much louder than their words. The bottom line is that millions of fans don’t have access to DirecTV for one reason or another and are simply unable to subscribe. As a diehard Packer fan living in a California condo with no view of the southern horizon, I can certainly relate.

Gregg Easterbrook wrote a great piece for ESPN about the fractured relationship between the NFL and the cable carriers, giving a blow-by-blow history of how the chasm developed between the league and the companies that broadcast (some of) their games. He summarized his solution this way:

The NFL's smackdown with the cable carriers about the NFL Network proves the NFL cannot always get its way, which is reassuring, in a sense. Aspects of the cable carriers' position are hard to fathom: NFL Network is a good product; don't the cable carriers want to offer viewers the best possible sports coverage? Otherwise, lack of diligence in finding a way to offer true universal access to Sunday Ticket is a major failing of the league. The National Football League must find a way to offer anyone the chance to buy Sunday Ticket. If the league does not, Congress ought to follow the NFL's advice and intervene. Members of Congress ought to pressure the NFL to stop offering Sunday Ticket to the entire populations of Canada and Bulgaria but restricting access here. This sounds like a nice populist cause for the right senator or representative.

Some cable executives contend there is little point in chasing Sunday Ticket because all the people who want the service already have migrated to DirecTV. Sure -- all the people who want it at $250 a year, plus bundled charges, plus the hassle of installing and maintaining a satellite dish. If Sunday Ticket were $50 a year and came hassle-free through cable or any other hassle-free electronic pipeline that might evolve, instead of 1.6 million households getting Sunday Ticket, 25 million might sign up. Then consumer costs would be lower but business revenues higher -- $1.3 billion instead of $400 million in that example -- and what was once a luxury for the privileged few could be possessed affordably by almost anyone. Just like what happened with cell phones! Come on NFL, let us choose which game to watch. We'll pay, you'll be richer and you can stop speaking out of both sides of your mouth, demanding public access to the NFL Network while restricting public access to Sunday Ticket.

I don’t really blame the cable companies for balking at the league’s high carriage fees. Personally, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time watching the NFL Network if not for the eight games it broadcasts. It’s tough to trust news about a subject from someone who is employed by that subject. Ever go to your favorite team’s website for good, honest discussion about their performance? No, we tend to go to independent, (mostly) unbiased sites where there’s more candor and reporters will dig deeper for the real news. We visit the team websites to look at the cheerleaders.

So do we really need a NFL Network? Not really.

Do we need Sunday Ticket? Hell yeah.

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