The NFL is back. The tailgaters will be cooking their burgers in NFL stadium parking lots before games; the couch potatoes will go to the store for their beer and snacks and plop in front of their big screen TVs. Sunday morning, afternoon and night belong to them. But those routines for NFL fans could be changing within 24 months.
Sometime between now and the end of 2004, the Walt Disney Co. is going to make a decision that will impact just about every football fan from Dallas to Anchorage, Alaska. Disney is going to decide whether it’s worth losing hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of a television contract to buy the rights to Monday Night Football for its ABC-TV network.
Monday Night Football is in its 35th season on ABC. There might not be a 37th.
Regardless of what Disney decides, NFL followers are going to have to change their fall and early winter habits beginning in 2006 and that could include changes in eating and drinking habits along with a significant social change in the lives of tailgaters who travel to see an NFL game.
NFL owners want more than a token pay raise from the networks, while the networks are trying to figure out just how valuable the NFL really is.
FOX owes its existence to the NFL. Sure, FOX had “The Simpsons” and “Married With Children” in 1994 when the NFL left CBS and signed deals with Murdoch, General Electric's NBC unit, Turner Sports’ TNT and Disney's ABC-ESPN. But it was the NFL that made FOX a network. Such was the power of the NFL.
In late 1997, NBC decided to walk away from the NFL, which created an opening for CBS, and Disney decided to take over the entire Sunday night schedule when the costs of buying NFL rights skyrocketed, forcing Turner Sports to the sidelines.
In 2004, the NFL is a loss leader for its TV partners. Yes, it remains the best sports vehicle for advertisers to reach young men, but there is no sizzle to Monday Night Football anymore even with John Madden in the booth.
Madden may sell video games better than anybody else, but he has not added enough couch potatoes to the ABC Monday night fair to satisfy Disney's bottom line.
Sunday's audiences aren't growing, and that is a big concern for both FOX and CBS in the upcoming contract negotiations.
So changes are in the offing. Could Monday Night Football, a fixture on ABC since 1970, end up on ESPN? ABC is losing millions of dollars on the production, and a switch to ESPN with a smaller audience but the ability to charge subscribers and advertisers to fund the program could happen. The NFL could sell an over-the-air Sunday night series to a broadcast network.
Some of the more radical ideas include starting the season in mid- to later-September, which would mean the regular season would end in mid-January and the conference championships and the Super Bowl would be played in February.
That would be a significant change. The Super Bowl is already a February affair, but the conference championships aren't. It would be a major change because February is sweeps month on TV, the month were networks put on sensational programming so that more viewers are attracted to their fare.
Networks then use the February ratings for their subsequent advertising sales. A Super Bowl is a ratings winner; championship games are big numbers grabbers as well. The NFL could force networks to ante up more money if the league's crown jewel programming is shown in February.
NFL owners are also studying later game starts, say 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern time on Sundays because later starting times in December seem to generate better ratings. That would play havoc with Sunday prime-time programming if games ended after 8 p.m.
Would the networks go along with that? Does CBS want to start its perennial ratings winner “60 Minutes” after 8 p.m. on Sunday?
Could the NFL create a Thursday night cable TV package that could bring in money for what is now an off-night? A Thursday package would take a game away from Sunday football broadcasts. Would that mean the Sunday rights holders pay less? The NFL cannot show games Friday night or Saturday afternoon and night during the high school and college football seasons under federal law until those schedules end. But there could be a late season Saturday package available.
Does NBC or TNT want back in the game? Will cable's NFL Network get any games? And can the NFL use that type of leverage to get the NFL Network more cable partners? Will the league remain at 32 teams and shift a weak TV market like Indianapolis or New Orleans to Los Angeles? Will Oakland or San Diego or the New York Jets move to L.A. or will the NFL just add a team to L.A. in 2008 and thus diminish the owners’ TV revenue share?
What will happen when over-the-air TV is digitalized? That is scheduled to happen by July 2007. What happens to those viewers who don't want digitalized TV and forego TV?
In many ways, the NFL's next TV contract is going to change how sports are presented. The NFL wants to squeeze more money out of Murdoch, Viacom, Disney and perhaps its old partners General Electric and Time Warner. Because of that, people may have to rearrange their work week, their Sunday schedules and their vacations.
The NFL is going to be quite different in two years for fans, tailgaters and couch potatoes. That is something that fans, tailgaters and couch potatoes better understand now.
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