The NFL Network: You're Kidding, Right?


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December 12, 2007

Apparently the NFL isn't making enough money. That's the only thing that could explain the latest scheme launched from the fertile minds that run the league. What am I talking about? Why, the NFL Network, of course. This is a 'premium' channel, run by the league, which carries NFL content 24/7.

Wait. I know what you're thinking. What about the full-time sports network, ESPN? Apparently that's not good enough. What about Fox Sports and its contract to cover the NFC? Apparently that's not lucrative enough. What about CBS and its contract to cover the AFC? Apparently that's still not ringing the cash registers loudly enough. What about NBC and its new contract to carry Sunday Night Football, with Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, and a veritable cast of thousands? Nope, apparently that still comes up short in the NFL's eyes.

The league not only wants to have its own cable network, it wants to be paid $0.80 per cable subscriber. That amount ' according to a recent USAToday piece ' would make the NFL Network the 5th most expensive cable channel out of the over 150 that currently exist. However, here's the real 'kicker' ' pardon the pun ' the NFL wants cable suppliers to package the NFL network in their normal offerings.

That is to say, they don't want NFL Network offered as yet another premium channel where the individual subscriber can opt to receive it for an additional cost, much like HBO, or Showtime. No, the NFL wants cable providers to embed the NFL Network in the 'standard' or 'enhanced' offerings to all subscribers, in effect digging into the cable providers' profit margin. Of course, that cost will simply be passed down to the subscriber ' all of the subscribers at a given level of service ' if NFL's plan gets adopted by cable companies.

Why would an advocate of freedom care? I care because the NFL's preferred option amounts to TV socialism, plain and simple. It's not like the NFL is new to this territory, though. This is virtually the same economic model NFL franchise owners use when they get municipalities to pay for new stadiums. All the inhabitants of a region pay for a venue that enriches a scant few and entertains a minority. Nice racket.

Let me be very clear on one other point. I feel no love for cable suppliers. They are the direct beneficiaries of poorly-planned and fundamentally-flawed regulation that creates a market where only one or two companies provides a service used, if not needed, by virtually everyone in a geographical region. Cable suppliers are sucking the government teat like a greedy pig just back from a vigorous romp in the mud. It is only because of the State that so few cable companies exist. Make no mistake about that.

This caveat aside, I don't mind the proliferation of pay TV channels. Given ala carte set-up for premium channels, the viewer is free to buy or not. If the NFL wants to form a network and sell it, I'm cool with that too. Hell, I love professional football. (Don't let this get out, but I've been commissioner of my own fantasy football league for three years, and have no plans of stopping.) Given the chance, I might even subscribe to the NFL Network as one of my premium channels. After all, I can watch any football team playing any opponent on any night of the week.


That personal failing publicly admitted, I'll just be damned before I sit on the sidelines and not point it out when these already rich folks attempt to scam everyone in a region just so they can make even more money. That's nerve. I'll give the leaders of the NFL one thing: They aren't easily embarrassed. Having a product for which you are paid a king's ransom can do that to you, I reckon.

To use another bit of NFL terminology, trying to abscond with cash from almost every cable subscriber in a region for a product that interests only a portion of them is piling on.

Given the way things work, I doubt anyone will throw a penalty flag, though.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.