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Volume 20 No. 42


As CBS puts extensive marketing and promotional resources behind its inaugural season of “Thursday Night Football,” look for the NFL to wait until after the season before it decides whether to stay with the network or take the package back to the open market.

CBS signed a one-year deal worth $275 million in February to share the package with NFL Network. The league holds a one-year option on the deal where it can either stay with CBS or open bidding on the package again.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus: “I don’t think there are any circumstances under which we wouldn’t want to continue with Thursday night.”
“It’s a long season, and I’d be surprised if we made the decision during it,” said NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp. “We really haven’t talked about it, but I think we’ll look at the whole season and make a determination.”

All the broadcast networks — including ABC, Fox and NBC — bid on the Thursday night package earlier this year, and sources with each of the networks have said that they are likely to bid again. Plus, Turner Sports is planning to bid on the package when it comes to market again, and cable channels Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network are expected to be interested in the package, too.

ESPN did not bid on the package earlier this year, and it’s not clear if it would be interested in it.

“Broadcast certainly helps, but that doesn’t mean going forward we won’t create a cable package out of this,” Rolapp said. “Cable could play a part in this. We haven’t ruled out any distributors going forward. We’re really concentrating on this CBS relationship; then we’ll make a determination.”

Clearly, CBS wants to keep the package beyond this season, and that’s been evident by the heavy marketing effort that started in February, two weeks after the network found out that it won the package.

“I don’t think there are any circumstances under which we wouldn’t want to continue with Thursday night,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “Compared to other prime-time programming, the ratings will be incredibly robust.”

Of course, the main reason the NFL will open the package after only one year is if the league believes that it will get significantly more than CBS is paying. But several factors will inform the league’s decision on whether to open Thursday night to bidders again after this season. League executives will study the package’s ratings, which both NFL and CBS executives expect to be high. CBS is guaranteeing a 12 rating for its Thursday schedule, which would put Thursday just behind NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” schedule, TV’s highest rated prime-time series.

But it’s more than just ratings. The NFL will be looking to see if CBS’s involvement with “Thursday Night Football” will help grow ratings and revenue for NFL Network, which is in nearly 72 million homes.

NFL Network will simulcast the Thursday night games on CBS and has been a big presence in the broadcast network’s promotion of the package. The two channels are sharing talent in front of and behind the cameras.

“Once we first went down this path, there was a bit of misconception that this was a statement that the NFL was abandoning NFL Network,” Rolapp said. “Every part of this relationship is about enhancing the profile of the NFL Network. … CBS has certainly helped deliver on that vision.”

McManus compared the relationship to CBS’s partnership with Turner Sports on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He said NFL Network executives have been part of every decision, including graphics, animation and production.

The league also will be considering more than just media issues. League executives want to make sure that the quality of the Thursday night games is high. The NFL has heard complaints in years past that the quality of its Thursday games wasn’t as good as the games on Sundays or Mondays because, in part, Thursday games don’t give players enough time to recover from the previous week’s games.

Rolapp said he’s convinced the quality of competition will not suffer.

“There’s no predetermined formula where if we see one thing then we’ll make a decision,” Rolapp said. “That’s not where we are.”

The NFL is on the verge of a deal with DirecTV for its Sunday Ticket package that will see its average annual rights fee increase to between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion over the next decade.

Though several issues still need to be ironed out, a broad agreement has been reached on the price and length of a deal, according to multiple sources.

DirecTV’s rights fee will increase by a mid-single-digit percentage each year in a deal that will sync up with the NFL’s other TV deals, which run into the next decade. ESPN’s deal runs through the 2021 regular season; the CBS, Fox and NBC deals go into 2022. It’s not clear exactly when DirecTV’s new Sunday Ticket deal would end, but sources said it would be either 2021 or 2022.

The deal has been described as “close” for most of the past year, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DirecTV Chairman Michael White expressing confidence that the two sides would strike a deal. The NFL and DirecTV still need to iron out some issues, particularly as it pertains to digital rights, but sources said those issues are not big enough to derail the deal.

Despite the recent movement, there still are no signed contracts, and a formal announcement is not imminent.

The new NFL-DirecTV deal will continue a relationship that spans 20 years. DirecTV remains the package’s only distributor.

An NFL spokesman described discussions as ongoing, and DirecTV declined to comment.

DirecTV’s current four-year deal for Sunday Ticket ends after this season and carries an average annual value of $1 billion.

The new deal is expected to grant DirecTV over-the-top rights for people who cannot install a DirecTV satellite dish — a feature the satellite company already plans to roll out for this season.

As with most deals these days, a new Sunday Ticket deal will allow authenticated users to stream the games.

Negotiations have slowed because of the sheer amount of NFL programming beyond just Sunday Ticket. Over the past year, DirecTV and the NFL have negotiated everything from NFL Network carriage to NFL Network analyst Rich Eisen’s new talk show. Eisen’s show debuts in October and is a partnership between DirecTV and the NFL’s over-the-top service, NFL Now. All of these talks are interrelated with Sunday Ticket.

AT&T’s planned $49 billion acquisition of DirecTV also has complicated the talks. When the acquisition was announced in May, it included a caveat that would allow AT&T to back out of the deal if DirecTV were unable to renew its Sunday Ticket deal. The league additionally needed to figure how AT&T’s ownership of DirecTV would affect the league’s four-year, $1 billion deal with Verizon to stream games to mobile phone users. That NFL-Verizon deal runs through the 2017 season.

The new NFL-DirecTV deal will continue an exclusive relationship that spans 20 years. DirecTV launched Sunday Ticket in 1994 and has remained the package’s only distributor. The package has around 2 million subscribers and is widely seen as being crucial to DirecTV’s growth through the years.

In the past, cable operators expressed interest in picking up the package from DirecTV, though the multiple system operators did not have serious discussions with the league this time. Cable operator executives have said that the popularity of the sports-tier whip-around channel NFL RedZone mitigates their desire for the entire Sunday Ticket package.

DirecTV rival Dish Network has said that it would be interested in bidding for the package, but its executives did not have serious talks either. NFL executives have talked to Google about a possible deal, but sources said those talks never got past the preliminary stages.

With this deal syncing up with the other media packages starting next year, the NFL will generate nearly $7 billion in annual media revenue from CBS, DirecTV, ESPN, Fox, NBC and Verizon.

Last week’s granting of a preliminary injunction by the New York State Supreme Court against MLB and the Washington Nationals in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network media dispute puts the league and Washington club at a significant disadvantage ahead of a potential trial this fall.

Peter Angelos’ Baltimore Orioles control MASN, which carries Orioles and Nationals games.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
The Nationals, MLB and MASN this week are scheduled to hold a status conference with Justice Lawrence Marks to review scheduling and next steps in the case. But Marks’ firm rebuke of how MLB came to grant the Nationals an arbitration award boosting the club’s annual local TV rights fees from about $41 million to $60 million places the league squarely on the defensive.

The next several weeks could determine whether MLB will be more aggressive in seeking a settlement in the long-running battle, a move that likely would render moot MASN’s bid in court to vacate the arbitration award for the Nationals. Marks, ruling in favor of MASN last week for the injunction, said the Baltimore Orioles-controlled regional sports network prevailed on multiple legal grounds, including “questions of irreparable harm, likelihood of success on the merits, and the balance of equities.”

The judge took MLB to task in particular for its “multiple positions taken in opposition to the preliminary injunction,” suggesting frustration with a scattershot legal strategy. A recent letter sent by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to the Nationals and Orioles called the arbitration decision for the Nationals from MLB’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee “final and binding,” only to have outside counsel for the league last week in court argue the RSDC ruling was instead an interim one still potentially subject to other internal MLB dispute resolution procedures.

“There is much clarity, as to process and forum, that will need to be decided,” Marks said.
Additionally, MASN prevailed on a key threshold issue of whether the court was the proper venue to argue the matter, given that the RSDC issued its decision in New York. MLB unsuccessfully argued the RSDC was not judicially reviewable.

Marks’ injunction is believed to represent the first time the league has ever been legally enjoined by an entity of one of its member clubs. The injunction will remain in effect for the duration of the case. If the case moves toward a trial, briefing in advance of that would likely begin in September.

MLB Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, who has played an active role in the MASN dispute over the past three years, last week declined to outline the league’s next moves in the case.

“It’s a club dispute,” Manfred said. “We’ll get it resolved one way or another.”

Separate from the bid to vacate the arbitration award for the Nationals in the New York State Supreme Court, MASN also has an $800 million damages claim against MLB pending before the American Arbitration Association. Those proceedings are on hold while the case in New York continues.

The dispute over media rights fees between the Nationals and Orioles stems from a 2005 settlement agreement between the Orioles and MLB that helped pave the way for the Montreal Expos to relocate to the nation’s capital. That agreement stipulated the Nationals could have their media rights fee payments from MASN reset every five years to reach “fair market value” using a formula commonly employed by the league for teams with equity interests in their own networks. The Nationals, however, argued before the RSDC that marketplace conditions for live sports rights dictated a far greater level of payments, and the club sought an annual average of $118 million a year.

The RSDC panel ruling on the case involved owners from the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates. MASN argued that the panel did not represent a neutral party for arbitration as the clubs along with the Nationals and MLB shared legal counsel from the Proskauer Rose law firm.

USA Today Sports Media Group this fall will make a significant push into college football content with several new digital initiatives, including a portal devoted exclusively to the Southeastern Conference.

Spanning The SEC, debuting today, will combine national coverage of the conference from USA Today Sports Media Group and parent company Gannett Co., along with local-level coverage from several Gannett-owned newspapers and TV stations. The portal will combine text, photos, social media content and material from sister USA Today Sports Media Group product For The Win, as well as video developed in collaboration with partner NeuLion, including two planned weekly whip-around shows. Team-level coverage will be offered for all 14 SEC universities.

New USA Today Sports Media Group digital efforts include Spanning The SEC, a portal devoted to conference coverage.
In addition to on-field coverage of the 2014 season, Spanning The SEC will offer recruiting coverage.

USA Today Sports Media Group in March struck a strategic partnership with NeuLion, which supports more than 170 NCAA digital properties, including eight of the SEC’s 14 schools. Spanning The SEC represents one of the first major products of that alliance.

Dave Morgan, USA Today Sports Media Group president, described Spanning The SEC as a template for other sport- and league-specific digital destinations the company is developing. Spanning The SEC also represents a counterpunch to the SEC Network, recently launched via a long-term partnership between the conference and ESPN.

“I think this shows that he who owns the media rights is not the only solution for keeping up with what’s going on in the SEC,” Morgan said. “This is going to leverage a lot of strengths between our partnership with NeuLion, our national assets and our local assets, and really get deep into what’s happening within the conference. We think this will really show the breadth of our capabilities in our commitment to product development.”

Spanning The SEC will be advertiser-supported, with Dish Network, Dickies, John Deere, Amway and Degree signing on as early sponsors. USA Today Sports Media Group is also marketing a presenting-level sponsorship for the portal. Some of the companies are also involved in the rival SEC Network on TV, including Dish Network, which is distributing the network.

The USA Today group has also developed two new college football polls, which will become additional content elements. The USA Today College Football Fan Index, debuting this week,will measure social media activity and responses from weekly themed fan surveys for more than 100 Division I schools and issue rankings for the “most passionate” fan bases in the sport. The weekly results, to be released Thursdays, will carry a presenting sponsorship from Degree.

A fan poll launching Sunday will tabulate consumer opinion on the top football teams, and include a title sponsorship from Amway. The fan poll will be separate from the USA Today’s coaches poll, also sponsored by Amway, and the fan rankings will not carry weight in determining who plays in the new College Football Playoff debuting this year.

But the fan pool will provide a large-scale look at who fans believe should be playing, and how that might diverge from the official rankings.

“This will work in collaboration with the coaches poll and help bring to life a longtime USA Today property,” Morgan said. “Fans are smarter than ever, and we think this will be of great interest to see how the sentiment plays out.”