Sunday, May 30, 2010

New Sports Illustrated Column on NFL Network and Cable Industry

I had the Viewpoint Column on a few days ago, and my piece centered on the consumer and antitrust implications of the legal and business battles between the NFL and major cable companies. Here's an excerpt:

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Some of these fans can still watch those contests because every NFL Network game that sells out -- and all 32 previous ones were sold out -- is simultaneously broadcast on free, over-the-air TV in the primary market of the home and away teams. But those fans who live in non-primary markets (generally defined as those living outside a 75-mile radius of the team's stadium) are out of luck. Their only option, should it be available to them, would be to switch from a cable provider to a satellite provider that offers NFLN. For a variety of reasons, possibly including convenience, cost and reliability, those fans may prefer to keep their cable provider.

There are about 56.3 million households with NFLN, a significant but underwhelming number when considering that the two-year-old MLB Network already has 55.3 million households, while the three-year old NHL Network, which offers coverage of a considerably less popular league than the NFL, has approximately 34 million. The NFL, of course, would like more homes to have its channel, which the league spent in excess of $100 million developing. But the league has encountered difficulties in convincing cable companies to include NFLN in its channel packages, particularly basic packages. The major holdup has been over price.

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The NFL can offer several responses to those lines of critique. For one, games aired on NFLN are broadcast nationally and thus have a wider viewership than regionally-televised games aired on free, over-the-air networks. The NFL can also highlight that while games aired on NFLN require payment to a cable or satellite provider, they are simultaneously broadcast on free, over-the-air networks (provided the games are sold out) in the home and away teams' primary media markets.