SBJ/August 1-7, 2011/NFL Special Report

Thursday night TV package, equity in NFL Network in play

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last week had informal conversations with TV network executives interested in a new eight-game Thursday night TV package.

Negotiations will heat up over the next two weeks, and TV network executives are expecting the future of the NFL Network to play a significant part in the talks, according to several sources. The league has hinted at the possibility of giving up management responsibilities — or even an ownership stake — in the network to the winning bidder of any new package.

League officials and network executives had early discussions about adding a new TV package earlier this year, but talks were put on hold as the labor situation heated up. The idea was to add eight early-season Thursday night games to complement NFL Network’s eight-game package in the second half of the season. The league expects to get as much as $700 million a year on that package.

Now those talks look to be back on the league’s front burner. Talks will start to get serious in the next month, and executives close to the situation believe a new package could be awarded by the end of September. It’s not known how the new Thursday night package would affect NBC’s season-opening Thursday night game.

But it’s the potential venture with NFL Network that’s causing the most intrigue. NFL Network’s distribution has grown to about 57 million homes at a reported cost of 81 cents a subscriber a month, according to SNL Financial. But the network still has not cut deals with three of the country’s five biggest cable operators (Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision) and no breakthroughs appear to be on the horizon.

The two front-runners for the new eight-game package, Turner and Comcast, have cut media deals with other leagues that have included league-owned media assets.

Turner pioneered the strategy in 2007, when — as part of a broader media deal — it took over management of the NBA’s digital properties, including NBA TV. Comcast cut a similar deal in April with the NHL, agreeing to build a new studio for NHL Network and eventually taking over the league’s national sales efforts.

This is not the first time the NFL has talked with media partners about taking equity in the channel. In 2009, the league had meetings with ESPN and Fox, offering both an ownership stake in the network as part of a larger media deal. Both sets of talks ended weeks after they started, sources said.

In addition to Comcast and Turner, Fox and ESPN also are expected to engage the NFL on the new package.
The league is negotiating a separate renewal with ESPN for “Monday Night Football” worth nearly $2 billion a year that also is expected to close within the next few months.

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