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Volume 23 No. 25
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An inside look at NFL meetings with networks to discuss future media rights

NBC executives made it clear that they want to keep the rights to “Sunday Night Football,” which has dominated prime-time ratings.
Photo: getty images
NBC executives made it clear that they want to keep the rights to “Sunday Night Football,” which has dominated prime-time ratings.
Photo: getty images
NBC executives made it clear that they want to keep the rights to “Sunday Night Football,” which has dominated prime-time ratings.
Photo: getty images

On Wednesday, June 3, top executives from CBS, Fox and NBC flew separately to Foxboro, Mass., for the NFL’s first official meetings to determine how the league’s next round of media rights will shake out. The following day, the NFL met with ESPN’s top executives via a video conference call.

 

Though the meetings took place eight weeks ago, they have not been made public until now. Both the NFL and the media companies wanted to maintain secrecy and avoid the appearance of negotiating through the press.

For the NFL, this was more of a listening exercise. The league knows how much media companies value its rights, and it wanted to hear how networks planned to approach the bidding process.

Each network delivered a similar, yet simple, message: They all want to stay in business with the NFL and are prepared to dig deep into their pockets to make that happen.

By most accounts, those initial meetings suggest that even during a global pandemic and uncertain future for live sports, this round of media rights is likely to maintain the status quo. For the most part, media companies want to hold onto the packages they already have and, potentially, add digital rights. 

ESPN is the wild card. It told the NFL that it wants to upgrade its package, which could mean moving off of “Monday Night Football.”

Executives left those June meetings believing they could have broad media rights agreements in hand by Labor Day, with contracts signed by the end of the year.

That timeline now appears to be too optimistic.

The NFL has held no formal talks after those initial meetings, and none are on the schedule as the league has turned its attention to starting its season amid the pandemic.

The delay does not suggest any hiccups. All sources believe that deals will be made. It just looks like it will take longer than top executives once believed.

 

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The league held the roughly two-hour meetings in a big conference room at the New England Patriots’ offices at Gillette Stadium, spreading chairs around a large table so that the executives remained socially distant. The NFL provided masks to the executives, but the meetings were conducted without wearing them.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp and Patriots owner Robert Kraft sat on one side of the table. Kraft is chair of the NFL’s media committee. The network executives sat on the other side.

CBS was the first network to arrive for a 9 a.m. meeting, led by ViacomCBS President and CEO Bob Bakish, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus and CBS Sports President David Berson.

CBS made it clear that it wanted to keep its Sunday afternoon package. With new ownership in place, CBS highlighted the amount of available channels and platforms it has under the Viacom umbrella. The main message: CBS has long been the top-rated network. Now it has the ability to attract a younger and more diverse audience, too.

NBC followed with a noon meeting that was led by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell and NBCU Television and Streaming Chairman Mark Lazarus. NBC Sports Group President Pete Bevacqua and Chief Marketing Officer Jenny Storms also attended.

NBC’s message was simple. It wants to keep “Sunday Night Football,” which has set a television record by placing as the top prime-time series for nine straight years. 

Several months ago, well before the pandemic hit, the NFL had believed that NBC was interested in picking up a second NFL package. But during the meeting, NBC’s executives focused almost exclusively on Sunday night.

■ Fox went next, at 3 p.m., led by Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch and Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks. Fox COO John Nallen and Executive Vice President Larry Jones also attended.

Fox focused on its Sunday afternoon package, telling the NFL it wanted to keep an NFC-focused package. Fox views the NFC as the stronger of the two conferences because of the amount of big TV markets in the conference.

Fox’s executives did not spend much time on “Thursday Night Football.” The broadcaster may have an interest in renewing its Thursday night deal, but it quickly became clear that Thursday night was far less of a priority than Sunday afternoon. 

Of all the NFL’s packages, “Thursday Night Football” looks to be the most likely to change hands.

ESPN executives met via a video conference call the next morning. It’s not clear why ESPN decided to meet with the league via video call rather than face-to-face. ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and executive vice presidents Burke Magnus and Connor Schell were on the call.

ESPN positioned itself as the wild card. It spends nearly double the other networks on media rights but is saddled with the so-called cable package that generally has the least appealing games of all the packages.

As broadcast networks increased the amount of retransmission consent fees they get from distributors, ESPN argued that the playing field has evened and it should not have to pay more for an inferior package. It told the NFL that it wants to upgrade its package. It’s unclear whether ESPN was referring to getting better games on Monday or shifting to a different package. 

ESPN reiterated that it wants to carry the NFL on ABC and become part of the Super Bowl rotation.

Absent from those early meetings: Big tech. The NFL has been in touch with companies such as Amazon, but sources expect that those discussions are focused more on smaller rights packages, akin to Amazon’s deal to stream a simulcast of “Thursday Night Football.”

During their meetings, the traditional media companies stressed their own digital offerings, like CBS All-Access, ESPN+ and NBCU’s Peacock, as digital places where the NFL could expand.

It’s been two months since those meetings at Patriot Place. While the global marketplace continues to fight the pandemic, most insiders believe the foundation of the next NFL deal won’t change from what was discussed that day.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.