Presumably, there will be plenty of NFL history flying around The Meadowlands on Saturday night. You know, the New England Patriots pursuit of 16-0 regular-season perfection. The fact the Pats need just six points to reach 557 and supplant the 1998 Minnesota Vikings as the league’s highest-scoring squad ever. Quarterback Tom Brady needs two TD passes to hit 50 and push past the Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning in the record book. And if a pair land in the hands of wideout Randy Moss, he’ll knock the 22 scores the league’s all-time receiver Jerry Rice caught in 1987 from the annals (albeit Rice’s single-season mark was secured in just 12 games during that strike-shortened campaign).
Of course, the New York Giants, whose coach Tom Coughlin said he’s going to play his regulars, will have something to say about what records may fall. Who knows? Maybe, the Giants pass rush, which had produced a league-leading 52 sacks, will pressure Tom Terrific. Maybe, the wind will howl and his passes will flutter to the turf. Maybe, the Giants running game can overpower New England’s aging linebacking corps. Maybe, Eli Manning will step up and look more like a quality NFL QB and not Peyton’s befuddled little brother. Maybe, the Giants will rise up and the 1972 Miami Dolphins will rest easy as the NFL’s only undefeated champion.
That’s why three networks will present the action, right? Not really.
Stymied by cable operators entrenched in a goal-line stand against the NFL Network’s wont for a 70 cent monthly license fee per customer and digital-basic positioning, the league’s in-house service counts just 43 million subscribers. Surely, this marquee affair deserves more.
Tossing out failed arbitration Hail Marys and buzzed by members of Congress, the league on the day after Christmas announced that CBS and NBC would join NFL Network in an unprecedented national simulcast. The Dec. 29 Pats-Giants game would be the first since Super Bowl I was presented by both CBS (NFL) and NBC (American Football League) following the merger of the two circuits.
Well, that’s not exactly accurate. The leagues may have announced their merger in 1966, but the AFL wasn’t really absorbed into the older league until the 1970 season. By that point, the Super Bowl count was two for the old guard, Vince Lombardi’s fabled Green Bay Packers, and a pair for the upstarts, the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.
In making the Dec. 26 simulcast announcement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: "We have taken this extraordinary step because it is in the best interest of our fans. What we have seen for the past year is a very strong consumer demand for NFL Network. We appreciate CBS and NBC delivering the NFL Network telecast on Saturday night to the broad audience that deserves to see this potentially historic game. Our commitment to the NFL Network is stronger than ever."
But this "extraordinary step" wouldn’t have been necessary a few years ago. Before the NFL Network added its eight-game primetime slate in the 2006 season, CBS and Fox presented late-season contests on Saturdays. In this case, Pats-Giants would have aired on CBS, with access available to all U.S. TV households. The NFL created its network’s Thursday and Saturday night schedule largely by carving games from its Sunday afternoon partners’ packages.
Going back to a Nov. 20 call with reporters in which he stumped hard about the network’s value and how cable was playing hard ball with independent programmers, Goodell was asked if Pats-Giants could be opened to a wider audience. He sacked the notion at that time, or in retrospect, equivocated: "It will remain on NFL Network." As it has.
During that same call, Goodell also discussed what many feel is at the heart of why many cable operators have kept NFL Network off their distribution roster: the out-of-market, pay-per-view Sunday Ticket package. If cable operators had been able to break through DirecTV’s exclusivity with the package, they’d be more inclined to carry NFL Network, even at its pricey terms. But negotiating legend has it in recent years that cable never really had a chance to bid, offered late or not enough.
Goodell at the time said that cable has sent mixed signals about how it values the Sunday Ticket: sometimes expressing interest and at others indicating that all of the subscribers that wanted the package already had switched to satellite. To that end, he said cable bid too late when the pay-per-view package was available in 2002 and didn’t move in the more recent round of negotiations. Multichannel News reported that Brian Roberts was involved in the round of talks in 2004.
Comcast not getting the Sunday Ticket and/or the eight-game primetime package for its OLN, now Versus network, is at the center of a late May ruling by a New York Supreme Court judge that allowed the nation’s largest distributor to move the NFL Network to a sports tier. That play, which the league is appealing, not only resulted in the channel losing 8 million Comcast subs in the migration, but no doubt further emboldened other operators to continue to hold the line on similar positioning.
And what if the NFL had accepted Comcast’s reported $400 million to $450 million offer for the eight games? Would Versus have made a play for a Major League Baseball package in an attempt to become a national sports competitor to ESPN?
More pointed to this discussion, would Comcast been more successful in building Versus’ sub base and gaining coverage for the eight NFL games? The operator, not the league, would have endured much of the consumer and Cogressional criticism about why the games weren’t more widely available, right? Not really. League sources said Comcast was looking for complete exclusivity, a shutout of the local broadcast carriage in the markets of the participating teams the league requires for its cable contests. That wouldn’t have made sense for the league’s antitrust exemption.
So, as the Patriots/Greatriots/Hatriots stare at history, a number of statements and business deals seem a bit disingenuous and warrant further review, Let’s hope Coughlin doesn’t revise his decision to give New England hell on Saturday night.
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