SBJ/February 12 - 18, 2007/This Weeks News

Bornstein calm in NFL Net storm

Sitting on a couch in Miami’s Marriott Biscayne Bay, Steve Bornstein presented the picture of relaxed confidence. Just three days before Super Bowl XLI, the NFL Network president known for his hard-driving personality was calm and cool, shedding his coat and tie in favor of a white dress shirt opened at the collar.

“We’re going to serve NFL fans on any platform that they want to get information and data. Sometimes, we will be the only person serving that platform. Sometimes, we will be sharing it with our partners, which is the most likely outcome for us.”

“We’re going to be doing interactive applications and enhanced television applications on those eight games [in the future] to see which ones enhance the telecast experience, hopefully increase viewership and satisfaction of the game and to see what works and what doesn’t work, so that when we do our next iteration of television contracts at the end of this decade, we’ll have a track record and experience.”

“If you talk to any of our players or owners or coaches, we’re a pretty central part of their daily media consumption. That’s a reflection of we’re not shills for the NFL. We’re talking the truth.”

“There’s great interest in high school football. It’s a hard code to crack because if you live in Texas, you’re interested in that. If you live in Pennsylvania or Florida, you’re interested in that.”

“I’m not getting the calls [from NFL team owners] saying, ‘Rich Eisen said such and such. How could you let him do that?’ I’m getting calls from owners asking how our distribution is going. How do the games look? This is an important asset.”

— John Ourand

During a rare 60-minute interview, Bornstein was engaging, assured and at ease, delivering his remarks confidently and smiling frequently.

After a year punctuated with high-profile carriage disputes with four of the top five cable operators, Bornstein’s demeanor underscored his larger message: NFL Network isn’t going away.

This was a message that was repeated throughout Super Bowl week by league executives, team owners, rival network executives and even some cable and satellite operators, who swear NFL Network helped drive subscriber growth in the third and fourth quarters last year.

“The NFL Network was the cornerstone of our third-quarter promotion which contributed to record gross additions at EchoStar,” said the satellite operator’s vice chairman Carl Vogel. “Any network that has the brand, quality of content and consumer support of the NFL has a bright future in our view.”

If the NFL is getting skittish about its investment in the NFL Network, it wasn’t evident in Miami. League and network executives openly said that they want to be in more homes than the 40 million that currently get it, but they are absolutely convinced they will get there eventually.

Team owners said they were not concerned and that the economic projections they had been given at the start were still in place.

“We are in this for the long term,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “Eventually the distribution will come, and it is not causing any hardship. It is pretty much in line with our plans.”

Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga added, “I have got confidence that they will come through.”

The owners have stayed lockstep behind the network and their decision to place eight regular-season games on it this year. Bornstein said that owners regularly call him asking about distribution, and in particular noted consistent communication with broadcast committee chairman Pat Bowlen and member Kraft. But owners aren’t losing their nerve during the high-profile disputes the network has been fighting.

The network is currently involved in legal battles with Comcast and Charter and has yet to reach an agreement with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. Cox is the only top five cable operator that has agreed to carry the network — and its games — without incident.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Bornstein said. “We have the ability to develop something that’s going to be a lasting asset.”

Broadcast executives also predicted that NFL Network has staying power.

“Steve Bornstein’s going to try and grow that network,” said CBS President and CEO Les Moonves. “He did fine for their first year [with live NFL games].”

Some NFL Network executives viewed last week’s Super Bowl as its real coming out party — even though the network is more than three years old. The network was ubiquitous in Miami. It had five on-air sets: one on radio row, one in each of the teams’ hotels, one in the stadium and one on South Beach. It put its channel in 35,000 hotel rooms throughout the city. It was on mike flags, signs, billboards, even the napkins at the league’s official tailgate party before the game.

Still, Bornstein bemoaned some of the press coverage during the season, specifically of the network’s cable disputes, where most big cable operators have balked at NFL Network’s 70 cents per subscriber license fee. Cable operators want to place NFL Network on a digital sports tier, which the network is resisting because they are poorly penetrated.

“This was always a long-term play. I’m not talking decades. I’m talking a couple of years,” he said.

Some executives viewed the Super Bowl as
the NFL Network’s coming out party.
Bornstein said much of the media viewed the network’s glass as half empty, when he says the network’s distribution of 40 million homes after more than three years is ahead of the network’s business model, which, admittedly, was created before the channel had live games.

“It’s about where you start and where you end up,” he said. “Tell me how you do in five years, and that’s how you judge. You can’t judge the first 60 days or the first 422 days.”

But Bornstein and his boss, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, believe those deals will come. Before and during his first Super Bowl as commissioner, Goodell was vocally supportive of the network, which he said is meeting his expectations.

“We think our customers want it, and we’ve gotten great reaction from them,” Goodell told Bob Costas during a radio interview a week before the Super Bowl. “We assume that at some point the consumer is going to win.”

The current disputes remind Bornstein of his early days with ESPN, when operators and media critics questioned whether consumers wanted, or needed, a 24-hour sports network.

“It takes time to get distribution,” he said. “Right now, we’re very well positioned. But it’s not over yet. We haven’t completed what we set out to do. We’re doing pretty well.”

Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this story.

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