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Early last week, as the NFL learned of Super Bowl XLVIII’s record-high TV audience, the league’s top executives still were not certain which network they would entrust to make the NFL’s Thursday night television package more popular.
In the days before and after the Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, New England Patriots owner and league broadcast committee chairman Robert Kraft, and the NFL’s executive vice president of media, Brian Rolapp, sat in the league’s Manhattan headquarters and heard final pitches from the three remaining broadcasters: CBS, Fox and NBC. Bids from ABC and Turner already had been rejected.
Sean McManus, with Leslie Moonves, said “there was no higher priority at CBS.”
The three league executives discussed the merits of each bid. Ultimately, they decided to go with the network that submitted the strongest initial pitch: CBS. They believed that CBS presented the best opportunity for the NFL to enhance its Thursday night window. The network’s $275 million bid for one year did not stand out
The NFL executives kept coming back to a few common themes about CBS. The league was most impressed with CBS’s status as the top-rated broadcast network in prime time. Thanks to that standing, CBS offered the biggest potential audience for the Thursday night package. Plus, CBS promised to use its top TV talent and broadcasters to present the games — not just the eight games on CBS, but also the eight games on NFL Network, giving the package a high-quality production look-and-feel that it hadn’t had before.
“Everyone was aggressive,” Rolapp said. “We chose CBS given its reach and commitment to promote NFL Network.”
Rolapp called CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus Tuesday afternoon to give them the news. He then called the other network heads to inform them of the league’s decision.
A few hours later, on Wednesday morning, the NFL and CBS made their formal announcement: CBS was getting the Thursday package for the 2014 season, with the NFL holding the option to use CBS for 2015.
Hearing that an NFL decision was close, Moonves and McManus stayed in New York. Originally, they were scheduled to travel on Monday to California, where CBS was broadcasting the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The deal’s signing on Wednesday morning completed a six-week process where the NFL’s Thursday package of games was the network’s main focus.
“There was no higher priority at CBS,” McManus said. “This was a project spearheaded by Leslie. It had a big impact with the NFL when they saw how committed CBS was from the very top of our company.”
McManus and the other broadcasters first learned that the package would be available during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when Rolapp called to say that the league would be sending out a request for proposals during the first week in January.
All the networks submitted their proposals on Jan. 17. Most set up follow-up meetings with the NFL in New York. Moonves, McManus and CBS Sports President David Berson formally pitched Goodell and Rolapp in Los Angeles a day after the AFC championship game was played in Denver.
From the outset, CBS emerged as the front-runner. The network’s initial pitch was strong, approaching the $275 million mark for one year. More importantly, it involved all of the network’s resources, with a commitment to promote the Thursday night games on CBS, CBS Sports Network, Showtime, CBS’s owned and operated stations, and CBS Interactive, Radio, Outdoor and Syndication.
Importantly for the NFL, CBS committed to put its A-team on all 16 broadcasts, including the ones that are exclusive to NFL Network. That means Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be in the broadcast booth, and coordinating producer Lance Barrow and director Mike Arnold will be in the production truck.
CBS also agreed to key demand from the league: that it would simulcast its games on NFL Network so long as the network’s commercials ran across both. And CBS committed to share on-air studio talent and resources with NFL Network, similar to how CBS and Turner operate during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Behind the scenes, Moonves remained closely involved, talking with Kraft, in particular, through the process. Moonves is an old friend and business partner of Kraft’s, and the Patriots’ owner holds major influence in heading up the league’s broadcast committee. Their companies are in business together, with the CBS Scene restaurant outside of Gillette Stadium at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Mass.
For Moonves and McManus, the NFL is must-have programming. CBS wanted the package to supplement its top-rated prime-time lineup. It wanted to deepen its relationship as the league’s biggest broadcast partner, the one that produces the most games. And it wanted to keep what’s certain to be a highly rated broadcast package out of the hands of its competitors.
“CBS is dominant in prime time already,” McManus said. “The prospect of going up against ‘Thursday Night Football’ at another network was not attractive to us at all. NFL games bring powerful ratings that we can add to our schedule.”
The package drew intense interest from every major U.S. broadcaster, even though the NFL mandated stringent terms that hurt its attractiveness. The NFL told broadcasters it would accept only one-year deals, games would have to be simulcast on NFL Network, and NFL Network would have to keep at least six games.
Sources said the NFL said no to Turner early on, opting to focus on broadcast networks to help grow the package. The league also turned down ABC’s bid. Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger wanted to pick up the package for ABC, which put in a bid that highlighted Disney’s marketing might in addition to its relationship with ESPN. But ABC’s bid lagged in price, sources said, and ABC’s executives were lukewarm on the idea of ceding another prime-time block to football. ABC carries college football on Saturdays in the fall.
That left Fox and NBC as the challengers to CBS. The money was similar, but ultimately, the NFL didn’t feel either network showed as much commitment to the package as CBS. Neither broadcaster committed to make its A-team available for the Thursday package, at least not initially, sources said. And neither network planned as much promotion around the games as CBS.
During final meetings earlier this month, sources said Fox and NBC executives agreed to make their top talent available for the games: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman for Fox; Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth for NBC. But this was all trumped by CBS’s aggressiveness and its all-encompassing bid. If CBS builds up the Thursday night package like the league expects, it undoubtedly will mean hundreds of millions more media rights dollars next year, when the NFL sells the Thursday night package to a long-term deal.
All of this month’s bidders said they plan to make aggressive bids on such a package.
“CBS gets no preferential rights with this deal,” Rolapp said. “We want to make sure that this package is successful.”
But that’s about to change.
Magnus emerged as perhaps the biggest winner from ESPN’s executive shuffle last month. A little more than two weeks ago, ESPN President John Skipper promoted Magnus to senior vice president of programming acquisitions, where he will oversee all of ESPN’s league partner relationships, such as the NFL, MLB and NBA.
I talked with Magnus last week to see how his new job is going. He had just come off a Super Bowl week that must have seemed like a speed dating experience, where he spent time with executives from several leagues.
One of his priorities will be with the coming NBA negotiations. Skipper and John Wildhack, executive vice president of programming and production and Magnus’ boss, will be intimately involved in the negotiations. But Magnus will be the one hammering out the details.
During Super Bowl week, he spent a lot of time with the NBA’s president of global media distribution, Bill Koenig, and president and executive producer of content, Danny Meiseles, attending games at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.
“That’s going to be front-and-center for me, making sure the NBA talks get off to the start that’s required,” Magnus said.
A longtime ESPN employee — he’s been in Bristol for 19 years — Magnus has made a name for himself by establishing some of the deepest relationships in college sports.
He’s been a regular at Mike Slive’s Birmingham home, sipping bourbon and smoking cigars on the commissioner’s patio while talking about college sports.
Magnus and Wildhack have a standing golf competition with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and conference lawyer John Barrett, playing at courses across the country. Bristol-based sources tell me that Magnus and Wildhack hold a slight edge in that competition.
For the past 14 years, Magnus has been the executive that has pushed ESPN to new heights in college sports, launching ESPNU nearly 10 years ago and wrapping up rights deals with major college conferences that extend well into the next decade.
While overseeing college programming, Magnus brought the BCS to ESPN; acquired several college football bowl games; cut a deal for all NCAA championships other than men’s basketball; and maintained three dozen rights relationships from the Ivy League to the SEC.
“Rights acquisitions get a lot of the headlines, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of our company,” Magnus said. “We’re going to have to continue to grow. We’re going to have to continue to help our partners grow. That’s a never ending job.”
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.