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Everyone has a theory for why NFL games are the highest-rated programs on TV today — from the exquisite HD productions to the fact that they’re DVR proof, from the popularity of fantasy to, yes, even the popularity of Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow.
But ask David Hill, former chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Media Group, why ratings continue to increase and he’ll immediately answer with the “Katz Theory” — as in Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. For the past eight years, the former ABC Sports president has led a small team of NFL executives through strings of endless schedule possibilities to develop ones that work best, both on the field and for TV. Earlier this year, the group sifted through as many as 14,000 potential schedules in a quest for the perfect one, or as close to perfect as they could get.
“Howard Katz is far more important than Luck or Tebow or Eli or Peyton Manning,” said Hill, who is now senior executive vice president at News Corp. “If you look at the way the National Football League is going, the MVP is Howard Katz.”
Including this year, Katz now has developed eight schedules for the NFL, starting with the 2005 season. During that time, the NFL’s broadcasters have recorded record-high viewership numbers and are off to another strong start this season. These massive TV numbers are a big reason why the league brought in a record haul of nearly $6 billion a year from its new TV contracts that start in 2014. It also shows why advertisers are paying more to market their wares during NFL games than anywhere else on television.
Katz’s team — which includes Michael North, director of broadcast planning; Onnie Bose, vice president of broadcast operations; and Jonathan Payne, manager of broadcasting — spend their springs trying to balance the desires of the league’s 32 clubs with the wishes of the league’s five television partners.
“Howard and his team are a main factor in the TV ratings we are seeing,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “They are so scientific and strategic in the way they lay the schedule out. It’s a remarkable task.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. Last year, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” beat out “American Idol” as the most watched prime-time series on television. Since ESPN picked up “Monday Night Football” in 2006, it has been cable’s most watched series by far. Last year, NFL games made up 23 of the 25 most watched shows on television.
NFL games have become the truest form of “must-see TV.” A Hollywood production studio could only dream of such prime-time domination.
But Katz’s job is more than just acting as a producer. His job in scheduling the NFL’s content has become as important to the television business as any of the prime-time decisions coming from the biggest network TV heads.
“Howard belongs in the company of executives like [Fox’s] Kevin Reilly, [CBS’s] Les Moonves and NBC’s Bob Greenblatt,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “He has an imprint on television that is as large as anyone who runs the traditional Hollywood side of the business.”
Consider this: Last year, the NFL accounted for more than 4,000 gross ratings points across its five networks, including the playoffs. That’s more ratings points than the entire prime-time schedule Fox and NBC delivered last season (Sept. 19, 2011-May 23, 2012). It’s basically even with ABC and in the neighborhood of CBS, which were the highest-rated networks for prime time last season.
The NFL’s ratings dominance is even stronger in the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers crave. The NFL accounted for more gross ratings points in the 18-to-49 demo last season than any broadcast network delivered from its prime-time schedule. That’s not a bad story to take to Madison Avenue.
How has the NFL’s TV ratings performance become so strong? TV executives cite the league’s consistently strong schedule as one of the main reasons. And they say Katz’s TV background combined with North’s analytical savvy have created the most TV-friendly schedules they have ever seen.
“Howard, for probably the first time in the league’s history, is bringing an unbelievable knowledge of each individual market and the needs of each broadcaster,” Hill said. “What he’s been able to do is showcase the best of the league in every available window. The scheduling of the National Football League right now is the best since it was started.”
The Giants and Cowboys, who played in this season’s opener, have appeared frequently and drawn well in the NFL’s weekly showcase game.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
As a result, Fox set an all-time viewership record for Week 1, and NBC posted its highest “SNF” viewership to date.
“Those three games made for a great leadoff to the season,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media. “Those were the three marquee games on the schedule and the NFL made sure fans could watch all three of them.”
The beauty of the NFL schedule for TV partners is that week in and week out, it is able to put its best matchups in national windows, which is a main reason why TV ratings have stayed so high.
Flex scheduling has helped the NFL take fewer chances on the back end of the schedule. Not only can NBC switch out of poor matchups starting in Week 11, but the Sunday afternoon broadcasters can switch their best matchups into the later Sunday afternoon national window, guaranteeing the biggest audiences for the biggest games.
“A lot of the changes Howard and his team have made to the schedule have been subtle,” McManus said.
One of the most unassuming executives in all of sports, Katz also is one of the most influential, thanks to the league’s TV ratings success. It’s a position that makes Katz uncomfortable.
“We don’t have any power,” Katz says of his team. “I don’t look at it as any degree of power. I look at it as a responsibility and one that we take seriously.”
But the executive certainly is in demand, particularly early in the year. TV networks start lobbying Katz and his team during Super Bowl week, getting right to the point of how they’d like to make their programming lineup more powerful. Sunday afternoon broadcasters CBS and Fox give Katz a list of games they want to keep on their networks. The prime-time channels — ESPN, NBC and NFL Network — give their wish lists for games and teams they’d like to get.
It’s not quite passing along deal points on napkins, but it can be a mix of casual prodding with sophisticated analysis from networks looking for the most popular teams and best matchups.
This season’s schedule put the first weekend’s three marquee games, including Broncos-Steelers, all before national TV audiences.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Katz compares the process to trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, where one seemingly minor change affects the rest of the schedule. Katz and his team work to solve their own puzzle in the NFL Manhattan offices over the first four months of the year.
“We’re throwing away schedules now that we would have played 10 years ago,” Katz said. “We’re not even giving them serious consideration because we’re so much more sophisticated in what we’re looking for.”
A decade ago, NFL schedules were created by the legendary Val Pinchbeck, who died in 2004. Pinchbeck literally created schedules off of index cards and a big cork board in NFL offices. Ten years ago, the league used four simple computers. This year, its half-dozen high-tech computers are 40 times faster than the ones used 10 years ago. The league used proprietary software that the NFL conceived, designed and owns.
The NFL says the six computers spit out 824 trillion possible solutions over 10 weeks. It’s a process that runs virtually 24/7 from the end of the season to the schedule’s release in April.
“Sometimes we’ll get a computer-finished schedule at 3 a.m., and Mike North, who’s the computer genius, will email me in the middle of the night with it,” Katz said. “Generally, we’ll come back in the next morning and go through the process all over again.”
This year, about 12:30 a.m. Monday, April 16, Katz shot Commissioner Roger Goodell an email recommending a final schedule, which was released the following day and is being played out now. If Katz’s past schedules are a guide, by the end of the season networks will be trumpeting bigger ratings and increased viewership. Again.
> On the schedule-making process: We manually input a lot of games and then let the computers solve around that. We just keep working it, working it, working it until we finally come out with something we’re comfortable with and are prepared to recommend to the commissioner.
> On lessons learned from 2011: The 2011 schedule was unique because there was a lot of labor uncertainty. We did certain things on the schedule last year to give us some protection for if the season didn’t start on time, we’d still be able to put out a schedule that had some date certainty for our teams and our fans. 2011 was really a unique year. Given all the complexities of that, overall we were pleased with the schedule. There were some things that we did with cross-country travel and other things that we would have preferred not to have. We did a better job this year because we didn’t have the same complexities at the beginning.
> On TV network lobbying: I didn’t get any lavish gifts. For media companies, the lobbying starts just after the Super Bowl and continues all the way through. It’s not just lobbying. We’ll ask them questions about things. If you’re going to have a weak window somewhere, would you rather have it in a single-header window or would you rather have it in a regional window? We try to get their input on things so we know exactly what they prefer if there are options and choices. Sometimes there aren’t. We’ll ask a lot of hypothetical questions that may not even come into play.
> On what he does during the season: Now that we’re finished, we’re going to go back and look at how we might have changed this year’s schedule if we had the cross-flex as an opportunity [where some NFC games that usually are on Fox will be on CBS]. We’ve got this year and next year to learn as much as we can about how best to use cross-flex. Our work isn’t done. … We’re going to model a schedule as though we had cross-flex at our disposal and see what that looks like. There are some computer changes we’re going to try and make. We’ll have our computer partners working on that software modification right away.
— John Ourand
MLB’s new-look schedule for 2013, featuring everyday interleague play for the first time, is being seen by league and club officials as a potential boon for attendance.
League schedule makers for years have sought to construct schedules with boosting ticket sales in mind, balancing those commercial interests with local needs and travel rules in the collective-bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association.
But next year’s slate, released last week and driven by the pending realignment of the Houston Astros to the American League, presents the largest set of changes to the league schedule since interleague play began in 1997 and MLB expanded to 30 teams the following year. Most notably, the perennially popular interleague play will be spread across the entire season (see box).
The slate includes the most changes to the schedule since interleague play began in 1997.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The creation of Prime Rivals week takes what have been some of the biggest crowds of the year for most teams and places them on dates that have been historically weaker draws in many markets. A similar dynamic can be seen in highly anticipated meetings such as four games between the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers next year that will all be played on weeknights.
“It’s definitely a new look at the schedule, and it’s something I certainly hope the fans will enjoy,” said Brooks Boyer, Chicago White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. The White Sox have played nearly all season in a tight division race with Detroit but still have struggled with attendance at U.S. Cellular Field, ranking seventh worst in baseball at press time with an average of 24,457 a game.
Several teams last week said they were unhappy with the loss of a third home date against their primary interleague rival in the new format. But after some discussion of potentially moving to a more balanced schedule, clubs will still play the majority of their games against their four divisional rivals, providing some consistency among the changes.
“Keeping the unbalanced format, I think, is a big positive and gives real credence to the division title,” said Dave St. Peter, Minnesota Twins president. “Our fan polls showed some of our folks would prefer to have a bit more variety in the opponents coming through our park. But having those deeply built natural rivals is still really important in what we do.”
MLB was somewhat prepared for the arrival of the new alignment placing 15 teams each in the American and National leagues, having developed several prototypes in recent years during prior realignment talks. Creating the finished product required resolving the question of what to do with its annual “squeeze week.” In part because of lost days around the All-Star Game, each MLB team every year plays one week with three separate series instead of the usual two.
The creation of Prime Rivals attempts to boost the prominence of the squeeze week while also in many instances lessening team travel during the period.
“Prime Rivals was definitely a big part of the discussion, getting those two-game series in the schedule, and what we were going to do with that week,” said Katy Feeney, MLB senior vice president of scheduling and club relations. “We’re hopeful on how this is going to work out.”
MLB attendance this year has cooled considerably in recent weeks after a torrid start to the season. A year-over-year increase that neared 8 percent in the late spring was below 3 percent last week, at an average of 30,952 a game. Such a dynamic is common as school begins again and vacation travel drops considerably. Still, if the current growth rate holds, it will give MLB a second straight annual increase after three straight years of declines, as well as the fourth largest overall attendance in league history.
“We should be ready to share our vision for the investment at some point in the next six months,” said Garber during a break in the two-day meetings of more than 250 team, league and industry executives at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel. He did not shy away from saying that the move will be bold.
“How we allocate the monies that we received from Providence will be innovative,” Garber said. “Balanced risk is important. We’re going to go as fast as we can and as hard as we can so we can meet our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world in the next 10 years.”
Risk was a key theme in MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s state of the league address.
Photo by:GREG BARTRAM
“Teams need to have a good plan but also push the envelope,” he said after the session. “The league did with the Providence deal. We did it with the creation of SUM 10 years ago. We’re encouraging teams to take risks.”
Garber’s state of the league address was followed Wednesday morning by updates from MLS President Mark Abbott, SUM President Kathy Carter, MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler and Todd Durbin, league executive vice president of player relations and competition. The theme of the summit was “Go to Goal.”
■ NSC SHAPING THE FUTURE: Bryant Pfeiffer, MLS vice president of club services, said the league’s National Sales Center has placed 82 trainees in jobs with MLS clubs over the last two years.
Created by Pfeiffer in July 2010 in Blaine, Minn., the NSC trains salespeople — optimally, true believers in soccer and the MLS brand — and recommends the best candidates to franchises with openings after they take coursework that lasts anywhere from 45 to 120 days. The trainees also sell season tickets for all MLS clubs from the NSC, resulting in added revenue for the clubs. (MLS would not divulge sales figures). The program was recognized in May at the international Stadium Business Summit in Turin, Italy, as winner of the Sponsorship, Sales & Marketing Award.
As a result of the NSC’s success, Pfeiffer said he has started to hear from other leagues and teams.
“We’ve even had inquiries from companies outside the sports industry,” he said. “They want to know how the program works, and I’m happy to take them through it.”
All 19 MLS clubs have hired at least one of the 82 trainees placed so far. Some have already been promoted internally. Zeeshan Hussain, now the corporate ticket sales manager for FC Dallas; Eric Hanninen, the inside sales manager for the San Jose Earthquakes; and Jacob Hanselman, a senior ticket sales executive with the Chicago Fire, are all graduates of the program. This year, Hanselman finished in the top 20 among MLS salespeople in new season tickets sold.
“We’re proud of how the initial blueprint for the program started on the back of a napkin and continues to evolve,” said Pfeiffer, the former senior director of ticket sales of the Minnesota Timberwolves before joining MLS in 2007. “It has become an industry leader in sales training innovation and a test laboratory for developing sales culture and management ideas for MLS.”
■ BRAND BUILDING: Prior to the start of departmental breakout sessions for the rest of the summit, MLS and SUM hosted a panel discussion titled “Brand Building in a Fragmented Marketplace.” Participating in the discussion were Betty Noonan, vice president of marketing and brand management for Panasonic; Mark Wright, vice president of media services and sponsorships for AT&T; and Quaker Oats Chief Marketing Officer Justin Lambeth.
“What sport is the most popular globally and the fastest-rising in the U.S.? Soccer,” said Lambeth, whose company signed a jersey sponsorship deal with the Chicago Fire this year. Lambeth told the audience that the deal fit in with Quaker’s strategy to update its brand image.
Noonan joined Panasonic last year after 25 years at Kodak. In her first month on the job, she had to decide whether to renew Panasonic’s deal with MLS.
“My job is to change the brand,” Noonan said. “I didn’t think Panasonic was utilizing the asset of soccer as effectively as it should. We did another deal with MLS but expanded it to the U.S. national teams.”
After the panel discussion, Noonan explained why she accepted MLS’s invitation to attend the summit.
“I like to meet people and get my hands dirty,” she said. “In my opinion, not a lot gets done in the office.”
Since Wright is also in his first year at his company after two decades at Anheuser-Busch, he embraced the opportunity to represent AT&T at the summit.
“These league meetings are a good chance to talk about what’s important to us,” Wright said. “Also, I want to work with people I like — and the people at MLS are first-rate.”
■ EXTRA KICKS: On Tuesday night, summit participants watched the World Cup qualifier between the United States and Jamaica from the porch of the Upper 90 Club, overlooking the pitch at Crew Stadium. According to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, the sellout crowd of more than 24,000 included fans from 43 states, with only 38 percent of the game’s attendees from Ohio.
“We worked closely with U.S. Soccer to have the match here,” Garber said after the match. “I’ve been to dozens of qualifiers, and I’ve never been to an event quite like that. Too often, the U.S. team plays in this country and feels like a visitor. We had the home-field advantage [Tuesday]. Columbus over-delivered in every way.”
The match was also a good night for networking. Among the conversations, while speaking with Noonan of Panasonic during the game, FC Dallas President and CEO Doug Quinn told her, “We need to talk about our stadium.” The naming rights of FC Dallas Stadium are available — but no word if that’s where any subsequent discussion led.
Network lobbying for the best NFL schedules has become as competitive and strategic as NFL games themselves, with the prime-time networks trying to convince the league why they should be the ones to produce Dallas Cowboys games, in particular.
“We try to create schedules that are fair and equitable to everybody,” said Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. “But the packages have sort of defined themselves.”
In prime time, that means NBC winds up with the most attractive matchups because of its position as the only broadcast network to carry prime-time games. Coming into this season, since it began carrying “Sunday Night Football” in 2006, NBC had aired the always popular Cowboys 20 times and both the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts 18 times.
When NBC’s executives, led by Mark Lazarus, met with Katz’s team at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis this year, they put in requests for the most attractive teams and matchups. It’s no surprise that some of the most popular NFL teams — the Cowboys, Giants, Green Bay, New England and Pittsburgh — will each appear on “Sunday Night Football” three times this season. That leads to a well-positioned prime-time package of games like Cowboys-Giants, Steelers-Ravens and Patriots-Jets, guaranteeing NBC strong prime-time performances week after week all the way through December.
“Like all of the league’s television partners, we make requests and ask for teams based on their prior year’s performance,” said Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports. “The rest is at the league’s discretion.”
ESPN approached the NFL with a different strategy. Network executives John Wildhack, Norby Williamson and Leah LaPlaca figured they wouldn’t be able to get multiple appearances from marquee teams like the Cowboys, Giants or Steelers, so they targeted clubs that may slip under the radar.
ESPN will carry three Chicago Bears games this year, solidifying a big market for the network. And its on-screen analysts, including Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico, told the executives that they thought the Houston Texans were poised to have a good season. ESPN ended up with the Texans twice.
“Howard and his team do yeoman’s work trying to balance out all of the competing influences going into the schedule,” said LaPlaca, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions.
The biggest problem for the league’s schedule-makers this season was NFL Network’s new Thursday night schedule, which increased from eight games to 13 games. NFL Network carries no team more than once.
“The challenge was making sure that teams playing a road game on Thursday are home the previous Sunday, and teams playing a home game on Thursday are either home the previous Sunday or in a 1 p.m. [ET] window if they are going to be on the road,” Katz said. “That’s what made it so tricky.”
Requests from the teams also add to the complexity. For example, Katz’s team tries to avoid three-game road trips. This year, only two clubs have them: Green Bay and Houston. The last time Green Bay had a three-game road trip was in 1998. The last time Houston had one was 2006.
“We pay attention to that,” Katz said.
This year, only two teams play a road game after a road Monday night game: Chicago and Carolina. That last happened to Chicago in 1995; it has never happened to Carolina before. “We really try to manage this so that there’s an equity and the same team is not getting a penalty year after year,” Katz said.
Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson credited the NFL with creating schedules that benefit the networks. But he said while schedules help, the increased media attention on the league is the key reason why the league’s ratings are so strong.
“Look at all the stories about the NFL in the past six months — the draft, the combine, Bountygate, [Peyton] Manning, [Tim] Tebow, RGIII, [Andrew] Luck — which the NFL now responds to with its TV lineup of games for the networks,” Pilson said. “I think preseason NFL media is 100 percent greater now than 20 years ago.”