SBJ/20090309/This Week's News

NFL Network steps up carriage talks

NFL Network is facing the loss of 2 million more subscribers next month when its carriage contract with Comcast ends.

With its deadline coming by the end of April, some of the NFL’s top executives have stepped up their negotiating efforts to convince Comcast to cut a deal that would put the channel on its digital basic tier.

Currently, Comcast carries the channel on its sports tier. The NFL has said that it would not cut a new deal that would keep the channel on Comcast’s sports tier.

If Comcast drops the network, that would mean that only one of the top nine MSOs — Cox Communications — would have a deal with NFL Network. The Cox deal is up in 2011.

Last year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put NFL Network’s total distribution at 35 million homes.

At the end of last month, Comcast sources said that some of the NFL’s top executives, including Goodell, New England Patriots owner and NFL broadcast committee chairman Robert Kraft and Dallas Cowboys owner and NFL Network committee chairman Jerry Jones, visited the operator’s Philadelphia offices to try to complete a last-ditch deal.

By all accounts, the talks did not progress far, and some Comcast insiders expect that the operator will not work out a deal, which means it would drop the channel next month from its digital sports tier, which has about 2 million subscribers.

Meanwhile, the NFL has continued talks with Fox about the broadcaster taking an equity stake in the channel, which would allow Fox to wield more leverage with cable operators (see SportsBusiness Journal, Jan. 26-Feb. 1 issue). While the Fox talks are ongoing, sources say they are nowhere close to cutting a deal.

The NFL held similar talks with ESPN, but those ended early last year and have not been resuscitated.

NFL Network’s most immediate concern, however, is Comcast, which originally launched the channel in 2004 to a digital tier that reached 10 million homes.

Comcast eventually moved the channel to its digital sports tier, a move that caused the NFL to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. Next month, an administrative law judge is scheduled to hear the complaint about whether Comcast had the contractual right to move NFL Network to a sports tier. The judge’s hearing coincides with the end of NFL Network’s contract.

The judge’s decision, however, will have no bearing on whether Comcast cuts a new NFL Network deal, according to several media sources.

It’s unclear if the league’s out-of-market Sunday Ticket package would be part of the league’s negotiations. DirecTV has exclusive access to the package through the 2010 season.

But other leagues have used their out-of-market packages as leverage to convince cable operators to grant carriage to their league-owned channels, including Major League Baseball, which launched MLB Network to 50 million homes in January.

The NBA also is using its League Pass package as an incentive for Comcast to take their channel off of a sports tier. A deal that would move NBA TV to Comcast’s D-1 tier is expected before the next basketball season starts.

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