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Patriots-Giants triggers furor

Non-Boston fans need cable link

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seems determined to keep the Patriots-Giants game on The NFL Network. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seems determined to keep the Patriots-Giants game on The NFL Network. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / November 23, 2007

Back when NESN analyst Mike Milbury was assistant general manager of the Bruins, salary escalation was really just beginning in the NHL. At one point, he declared there was no longer anyone to feel sorry for because everybody was raking it in.

Nowhere is that more true than in the ongoing battle between the NFL and cable operators with regard to The NFL Network. If the Patriots were a mediocre team and not going into the Giants' contest Saturday, Dec. 29 - the last game of the season - with the possibility of being undefeated, it's unlikely there would be as much furor over The NFL Network's exclusivity (with the exception of the Boston market, where it will also be broadcast on Channel 5).

The tug of war is complicated, but here's the bottom line: It's about cash and control between parties that are used to getting their way. During a conference call earlier in the week, commissioner Roger Goodell (who deserves kudos from this space for the way he handled the Michael Vick disgrace) made the point several times that he was sticking up for the fans. He said it was important to make NFL games as accessible as possible to the widest audience.

Let's say that's true and he actually believes that. One longtime TV insider who requested anonymity said Goodell has the ability to take the Patriots-Giants game off The NFL Network and give it to the rest of the country for free.

"If it's all about taking care of the fans, they should turn around and say, 'We're going to do something brilliant; we'll give it to NBC and let them dump the Kansas City-Jets game,' " the insider said. "If the NFL really cared, let NBC flex do that [Patriots] game on Saturday night, let the entire country see it, and put Jets-Kansas City [Sunday] on The NFL Network. They have the mechanism in place but they're banking on [the Patriots] game to leverage it to get better distribution for The NFL Network. So, in essence, they're holding their own fans hostage."

The same insider suggested that fans should be less angry at the cable companies and direct their ire at Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who was on the committee that formed The NFL Network, and ask him why free TV is being taken away from them now when it was never an issue before.

Sure, there are options for the consumer. According to the NFL, the fans who can't get WCVB-Channel 5 or don't have The NFL Network have other choices - Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-Verse, DirecTV, and the Dish Network. There are also sports bars. Comcast customers can sign up for the sports tier, which includes The NFL Network, prior to the game and then cancel it the day after. This would actually make the cable operators' point that there isn't that much interest in the network on an ongoing basis.

The cable companies' view is that the NFL is trying to jam the network down their throats and they're pushing back. There is the option for the FCC to sort it out through arbitration but that begs the question: Why would the NFL want the government involved when it has never wanted the government anywhere near the league in the past?

The NFL wants to be on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which translates to 8,760 hours per year to fill with programming. Yet, the network has just eight games, which is roughly 24 hours.

Unlike Major League Baseball, where every team plays 162 games, there are far fewer NFL games. As the TV insider pointed out, the highest-rated NFL game was watched by 20 percent of the population, which is very high in TV terms, but also means 80 percent of the population didn't watch it. So whether there is actually a market for The NFL Network remains to be seen.

The issue is coming to a head because of the Patriots.

"Obviously, the Patriots' record is continuing to be a big story and a good story for the league," said Goodell. "It is the last game on our NFL Network schedule and it will remain on The NFL Network schedule.

"These games are in great demand around the country."

Yes, commissioner, the game is definitely the thing, particularly this one. So keep this in mind when you jump to blame the cable companies. They aren't the ones who took the eight games off free TV and put them on The NFL Network.

In the case of the Patriots-Giants, as was true in the case of Vick, hopefully the NFL will do the right thing.

NESN shows Grey Cup

NESN will cover the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Vying for the championship are the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers . . . The Bruins are in action on NESN three times in the next four days - at noon today at home against the Islanders, on the road at the Islanders tomorrow, and against the Flyers at Philadelphia Monday . . . NESN is premiering a new season of "Rubber Biscuit," hosted by Rob Simpson, tomorrow night at 10:30 after "SportsDesk." The program, which focuses on Bruins players, coaches, and fans, has the first episode spotlighting the Pumpkin Regatta in Windsor, Nova Scotia, with former Bruins Bob Sweeney and Cleon Daskalakis . . . The Boston University men's hockey team will face Cornell at Madison Square Garden tomorrow at 8 p.m. CSTV will broadcast it and stream it live. The announcers will be analyst Dave Starman and play-by-play announcer Matt McConnell. Fans interested in tuning in can purchase the game for $7.95 through CSTVppv.com.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at Marrapese@globe.com.

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