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The NFL's Waiting Game

When the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers battled last Thursday night in a matchup of two 10-1 teams, I did what a lot of other guys probably did: I told my wife I had a late meeting and met the fellas at the bar to tip a few adult bevies and watch the game.

That's a problem for my accountant, who will have to find me some dough to get my wife something nice after she reads this column. But it's a bigger headache for the NFL Network.

Thursday was the network's prom night, its first must-see game. But with penetration for the four-year-old network still below 40% of television homes, most people had no ticket to the dance. And with the big on-field battle having come and gone, the NFL Network's party doesn't look to get crowded anytime soon.

The creation of the network and putting live games on its air last year was a smart long-term play. But the league doesn't have the leverage to bully the cable operators the way it clearly had hoped.

NFL Network has satellite carriage, but wants 70 cents per sub and coveted basic tier placement from big cablers like Comcast and Time Warner. So far, that isn't happening. And I don't see how it will, with the current setup of NFL television contracts.

The league gambled the $400 million a year it could have gotten on the open market that putting eight late-season games on its own network would be a game-clincher. It expected bitter, proactive fans to rise up and push cablers to cut a deal.

It's a nice idea. I just don't know who those fans would be.

The problem is the most devoted NFL fans—who can afford it—probably already have DirecTV, with its exclusive package of out-of-market games. I should know: I plunk down $250 per year for the right to throw things at my TV while my hometown Vikings invent ways to ruin my Sundays. And if you have DirecTV, you already have access to the NFL Network.

The other problem is that fans in Green Bay and Dallas all got to see the big game anyway. The league allows the local markets for the teams playing that night to carry the games on an over-the-air channel, so Packers and Cowboys fans didn't miss a snap.

Now mix in all the fans who go to bars or friends' houses to watch the games. Suddenly, we see why cable operators feel OK about holding their line.

What can the NFL do? The league was hoping the wild card would be a Washington willing to step in and mediate on its behalf.

Our D.C. bureau chief John Eggerton told me that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's tough night last week (see Editorial and Washington Watch) didn't help the NFL's cause. Had Martin gotten his way on the cable regulation “70/70” issue, it could have led to arbitration between the sides. Eggerton still thinks the NFL has an opportunity to get Washington involved, especially if Ed Markey's Patriots keep winning.

The league could choose to play hardball with fans and the other networks during the next round of TV deals. Or to paraphrase Napoleon, a fellow short man with a bad attitude, if you're going to take Vienna, just take the damned thing.

The NFL could use flex scheduling on its own package, give itself eight great games and not put them on over-the-air outlets in the home team's markets. That would get fans angry—but at whom?

The NFL Network could have another huge game the last week of the season if the Patriots are still undefeated when they play the Giants. But the network will need to call a new audible to gain some traction against cable operators.

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