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Volume 20 No. 42
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How networks make their play for games

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.”