A Political Football

The dispute between the NFL Network and some cable operators is a deadlock that is caused by one thing: greed.

On Dec. 29, the New England Patriots will play the New York Giants. That is one of the eight games the NFL Network claimed for itself this year. As it turns out, it is possible (or likely, if you are a Patriots fan) that the Patriots will become the first undefeated NFL team in 35 seasons.

Fans in the immediate New York or Boston regions will see the game over network television. Some 35-40 million other fans potentially can watch it on the NFL Network because their cable company or DirecTV carries the network.

And what about the millions of Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter customers? Comcast charges extra to get the NFL Network on a sports tier. It costs the cable company around 70-90 cents per subscriber per month. Note to Kevin Martin: It doesn't want to pass that cost along to all of its customers. The NFL Network wants Comcast (and Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter) to offer the NFL Network on its basic tier. But those companies say they can't justify the price. We understand. Except for those NFL games, the rest of its schedule is material only a rabid fan could love, much of which has all the excitement of a 1960s-era marching band at halftime.

But it's also obvious that 1) many Americans hate cable companies and 2) most of the sporting world is infatuated with the NFL. In the PR war, the NFL is hoping that eventually cable will lose.

We have a suggestion. If the NFL Network wants to be fan-friendly, and if cable doesn't want to antagonize some customers, why not offer a “free weekend” of the NFL Network, and hire Nielsen to specially monitor viewership? The league offered a free week last December, when Time Warner in the New York area agreed to carry the network for a week, so fans could see the Rutgers University football team compete in the Texas Bowl against Kansas State.

Afterward, there was no groundswell of subscriber support to continue the network. We suspect that the NFL Network may be fascinating for the hard-core football fan, but calling it “must-have” programming would be a big stretch the other 357 days of the year.

As for the potentially historic Patriots-Giants game, the NFL should do the right thing and give it away. We can even predict the winner: the public.