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NFL analysis

Pressure from fans, legislators got NFL to act

Email|Print| Text size + By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 27, 2007

Concerned about where they could watch Saturday night's game between the Patriots and New York Giants when it was airing exclusively on the NFL Network, fans throughout the region reached out to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. They suggested a viewing party at Kraft's home.

"The only thing is I'm going to be down in New York watching the game," said Kraft.

Playing for a historic perfect regular season, the Patriots made the game must-see TV for football fans in New England and across the country. As a result, it became the center of a controversy involving the NFL Network, cable companies, and fans who want to watch NFL football without paying extra.

Heightened interest in the team's quest for perfection created a very public power play. It was about the NFL maximizing profits from its assets. It was about cable companies protecting their franchise. It was a game of chicken with billions at stake.

With an arrangement finalized yesterday for an unprecedented three-way (NFL Network, CBS, NBC) national simulcast of the game, the NFL finally blinked and moved out of the way, relinquishing its rights to exclusivity on the NFL Network. Frustrated fans, pressure from legislators, and the likelihood viewers wanted the game and not the NFL Network over the long term undoubtedly factored into NFL decision-making. The NFL Network could not afford the Patriots-Giants game becoming a referendum on its popularity.

The original dispute centered around whether the NFL Network deserved to be on basic cable. With the availability of the NFL Network largely subject to the discretion of local cable companies, fans outside the primary Boston and New York television markets (approximately 91.3 percent of US households) had limited options.

Comcast subscribers, for example, could have added the Sports Entertainment package at a promotional rate of $4.99 per month for the first three months. Other options included paying for the Dish Network, DirecTV, Verizon Fios, or AT&T U-verse, visiting friends with NFL Network access, or heading to a sports bar.

By placing the NFL Network on sports tiers and asking fans to pay extra for the programming, cable companies believe they are serving the best interests of all their customers. Those who want the NFL Network can buy it. Those who don't want it avoid increased cable costs to cover the high monthly fee - 70 cents per subscriber - the NFL charges cable providers.

By keeping the NFL Network off basic cable tiers and unavailable to wider audiences, the NFL argued that cable companies were discriminating against their product. But despite lobbying state legislators and encouraging fans to switch to other video providers who include the NFL Network in basic packages, there were signs last week the NFL felt pressure to reach a compromise.

A week ago today, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to Time Warner president and CEO Glenn Britt offering to abide by binding arbitration in an effort to give as many fans as possible access to the Patriots-Giants game on cable. Time Warner, which does not carry the NFL Network, quickly declined. At the time, Kraft, chairman of the NFL Broadcast Committee, figured arbitration was the best way to reach a solution.

But in addition to sending letters, Goodell also received his share. After fans besieged congressmen, senators, state attorneys general, and TV station managers, congressional representatives from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Connecticut all sent Goodell letters expressing their hope the NFL Network-cable company dispute would be resolved before the Patriots-Giants game.

The Connecticut effort spearheaded by Congressman Joe Courtney suggested remedies that were, in part, adopted. First, the Connecticut delegation proposed the NFL use its right to flex scheduling to move the game to Sunday night on NBC. A follow-up letter sought to give Hartford's CBS affiliate, WFSB, the status of a "home team television station" since it meets the geographical requirements for both the Patriots and Giants.

"Personally, the NFL [was] nuts not to make sure this game is seen by everybody," said Courtney before the NFL Network capitulated.

When asked if the historic potential of the game ever made him think about interceding on behalf of Patriots fans before the three-way simulcast became a solution, Kraft cited the shared interests of NFL ownership.

"I have 31 other partners," said Kraft. "The strength of the NFL is that we really are a partnership . . . It's hard for me to put my selfish objectives ahead of my group of partners. We made decisions as a partnership [regarding the NFL Network] going back quite a while ago . . . When we chose this game at the beginning of the season, it could've been meaningless."

Now, it has significance beyond the playing field. While Kraft will be most concerned about the final score Saturday night, the NFL Network and cable companies will keep a close eye on other numbers.

Before the NFL announced its new arrangement, Comcast NorthCentral Division president Kevin Casey raised issues that remain relevant. The simulcast presents a one-game solution. It does not address long-term issues or the crux of the original dispute about where cable companies should carry the NFL Network.

"What happens after Dec. 29?" said Casey, who oversees customers in New England, New York, and portions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. "Does anybody care [about the NFL Network]? The playoffs are on broadcast TV. There's not another game on the NFL Network [this season]."

When controversy resurfaces in the future, the precedence of a three-way simulcast will have changed the playing field for both sides. Until then, the NFL can take satisfaction in overcoming an imperfect system with a perfect season on the line.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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