SBJ/20090525/This Week's News

Thaw took months of talks

The roots of last week’s surprise resolution between Comcast and NFL Network over distribution of the league’s five-year-old network were planted half a year ago.

That’s when, after three years of public barbs and stalled negotiations, league Commissioner Roger Goodell reached out to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. The duo, along with two new negotiators, commenced a series of face-to-face meetings that ultimately would break the logjam.

“If I had to pin something” on when the situation began to turn, Goodell told SportsBusiness Journal, “it was a little bit more serious [in] about November.”

That month, the network launched its third season of live NFL games without digital basic carriage deals on seven of the eight biggest cable operators. League executives held little hope that anything would break the stalemate in the ensuing months and were in the midst of a legal and political strategy that could have dragged on for years.

For much of 2008, the league struggled for solutions to the network’s cable problems. Earlier in the year, the NFL talked with ESPN about a partnership, but those talks fizzled. In November, Goodell initiated high-level talks with Fox, but those discussions met the same fate.

Around that time, Goodell chose to re-engage Comcast and decided that a fresh perspective was needed. The network’s president, Steve Bornstein, who had advocated taking a hard-line approach, would stay in the background, away from direct talks with Comcast executives. Bornstein authored several public opinion columns earlier this year arguing the NFL’s case, but he was no longer directly involved in the face-to-face negotiations. He instead worked on other media deals, like the broadcast extensions with CBS and Fox, the DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal and an EchoStar carriage deal.

Roberts brought in CFO Mike
Angelakis, who is rarely involved
in direct negotiations.

In Bornstein’s place, Goodell brought his chief financial officer, Anthony Noto, a former Goldman Sachs media analyst hired by the NFL in early 2008. Until November, Noto mainly handled the league’s debt and other financial issues. But then the West Point graduate became a critical player in the Comcast talks. Noto, sources said, counseled compromise and settlement over confrontation and litigation.

On the Comcast side, the company’s chief financial officer, Mike Angelakis, also took a central role in bridging the gap. While Angelakis is well-known to cable network affiliate sales executives, several said that he rarely is involved in direct negotiations like this. Hired by Comcast in the spring of 2007, Angelakis’ background is rooted in cable and finance, which was key in this negotiation.

The initial meetings in November were designed to try to repair the fractured relationship. The talks continued even as the two sides continued to bash each other in legal and regulatory proceedings.

Several league and media sources credit the teams of Goodell/Noto and Roberts/Angelakis for breaking the deadlock.

Goodell reached out to Roberts
and added CFO Anthony Noto
for fresh perspective.

“[Noto] understands the perspective of a Comcast and a Disney/ESPN,” said Bob McNair, the Houston Texans owner. “I think that makes it easier for him to make suggestions and recommendations that [were] meaningful for both sides.”

Neither Noto nor Angelakis would comment for this story.

Goodell’s negotiating approach with Roberts was also noted.

Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner and chairman of the broadcasting committee said, “Roger and Brian developing a good working relationship, a trusting relationship, that was the key.”

While relations between the NFL and Comcast were improving, there still was little movement in the negotiations for months.

In February, Goodell enlisted his top two owners on media issues, Kraft and Dallas Cowboys chief Jerry Jones, the chairman of the NFL Network committee.

“Both Bob Kraft and Jerry Jones were very helpful,” Goodell said. “Both came to important meetings back in February and were instrumental.”

At the end of February, Kraft, Jones and Goodell visited Comcast's Philadelphia offices to try to break through the impasse. Sources described the meeting as productive.

But animosity between the two sides flared up again when news organizations started asking about the meeting almost immediately afterward. Both sides accused the other of leaking details to the media, and talks cooled off for several weeks, sources said.

By April, the two sides were talking again.

NFL Network’s carriage deal was set to expire at the end of April, providing a real deadline for negotiations. If the two sides did not make any progress, NFL Network was prepared to pull its signal.

On April 29, one day before the Comcast deal expired, Goodell and Noto met Roberts and Angelakis in a conference room at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Hotel. The group decided to meet away from Comcast’s office to keep news of their meeting from leaking out. The executives believed the media scrutiny was making it more difficult to complete a deal.

During the six-hour meeting, from 4 to 10 p.m., Goodell, Noto, Roberts and Angelakis outlined the broad principles they were looking for in a deal.

A lack of digital basic cable deals has kept
a lid on the NFL Network’s household count.

Comcast wanted a long-term deal and a much lower license fee. The NFL wanted digital basic carriage and a resolution to the legal battles.

To complete the deal, the NFL agreed to lower its license fee, from more than 70 cents to an average of more than 50 cents over the lifetime of the nine-year deal. In the first year, Comcast agreed to pay the NFL 42 cents per subscriber per month.

By the end of the meeting, Goodell and Roberts agreed on the general framework and an extension to work out specific details, a process that sometimes takes months.

Two weeks later, though, the deal was imminent. The NFL wanted to have a deal finalized by the start of its owners meetings, which were held in Florida last week, so Comcast and NFL officials started working around the clock to finish it. The night before the announcement, the NFL’s lawyers were busy at the Fort Lauderdale Ritz-Carlton hammering out final details.

One complicating factor in the final week was Comcast’s focus. The company simultaneously had been talking with ESPN about a broad carriage deal that would give ESPNU digital basic carriage, ESPN360 broadband carriage and move ESPN Classic to the sports tier.

With ESPN executives in one conference room and NFL executives in another, a team led by Comcast’s Matt Bond, executive vice president of content acquisition, shuttled between the two. ESPN’s deal closed Friday night. NFL Network’s closed three days later.

So what finally sparked the NFL agreement? 

Clearly, the NFL’s decision to lower the price proved critical, as did Comcast’s concession to allow digital basic carriage.

But even the principals aren’t quite sure what pushed the deal over the top.

Asked last week in a press conference what moved the needle, Goodell’s political skills abandoned him and he first responded, “I don’t know,” before pressing into talk about partnership.

Later, questioned by SportsBusiness Journal, Goodell replied there was no light-bulb moment.

But Pat Bowlen, the Denver Broncos owner and media committee member, concluded, “It was one of those negotiations that seemed to be dragging on and on and finally the light went on.”

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