The NFL lockout continues, and Americans are wondering what will become of their favorite professional sport. Meanwhile, the television networks -- which spent billions of dollars to secure broadcasting rights to National Football League games -- are being forced to scramble, pun intended, to fill what could become a gaping hole in their programming schedules. For now, it's easy to see why broadcasters are keeping quiet about their contingency plans.
The NFL is big business for News Corp's (NWS) Fox Sports, Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) NBC Sports, Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) ESPN and CBS Inc.'s (CBS) CBS Sports. The networks would owe the league $5 billion even if no downs of football are played next season, ESPN reported, citing DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association. An NFL season is integral to their business plans.
A TV Ratings Blitz
NFL games often lead the lists of the most-watched TV programs during the regular season. TV viewership also hit record levels during last year's regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl. In fact, the NFL championship game was the most widely viewed U.S. television broadcast ever, breaking the record held since 1983 by the series finale of M*A*S*H. NBC's Sunday Night Football was the the most-watched show on TV during the 2010 Fall Broadcast Season, according to the Nielsen Company.
No TV reality show, scripted drama, situation comedy or other sporting event has the ratings of professional football -- and, according to industry insiders, that means advertisers likely won't pay top-dollar for non-football commercial time, either. The game's appeal to audiences of young men -- and increasingly women -- will be hard for any replacement shows to match. Considering the logistics involved in scheduling such a large block of programming, broadcasters may have little choice but to start planning for an NFL season possibly cut short or canceled outright.
Considering their (Non-Quarterback) Options
The financial stakes could especially high for NBC, because football is an integral part of its Sunday prime time line-up. "The most affected would be NBC," says Bill Carroll, vice president of the Katz Media Group -- who notes strong NFL ratings can boost the ratings of other network shows. "There is a residual impact on CBS," he says, "less on Fox."
Sports has taken on added importance for NBC, following the recent completion of the Comcast takeover. The Philadelphia-based cable giant also owns the Versus Network, the Golf Channel and 11 regional sports networks. Chris McCloskey, a spokesman for the NBC Sports Group, declined to comment for this story.
ESPN, which took over the Monday Night Football broadcast in 2006 from its corporate sibling ABC, would not discuss what options it is considering if the football season is shortened or canceled. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, which cites a note from Moody's Investor's Service, ESPN would be the network least affected financially if football games are canceled, "because fans will tune in there to see whatever has taken the place of the NFL, and ESPN wouldn't have to pay big money for game rights." It''s hard to imagine, however, hard-core football fans being interested in ice dancing or bowling, just because its on "The Worldwide Leader In Sports".
"We are optimistic that everything will get resolved," says Bill Hofheimer, an ESPN spokesman, in an email. "We are evaluating a number of alternate programming scenarios to minimize the impact of potential lost games. "
Hofheimer's comments were echoed by Lou D'Ermilio, Fox Sports' senior vice president for communications -- who tells DailyFinance that "we are considering contingencies but we haven't made any firm decisions." D'Ermilio declined to elaborate further. CBS Sports did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Season of Replacement Ball?
The networks are in the same quandary the league faced during the 1987 players' strike, which in turn came five years after another labor dispute caused regular season games to canceled. At the time, the NFL decided its fans would rather watch some football than none at all. But replacement football played for three weeks to nearly empty stadiums.
"Replacement ball also spawned a new list of NFL nicknames -- San Francisco Phoney Niners, New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, Los Angeles Shams, Miami Dol-Finks, Seattle Sea-Scabs, Chicago Spare Bears, and so on," writes Clare Farnsworth in a 2002 story in the Seattle Post-Intellegencer. "No one could believe, or wanted to believe, that the league and owners would actually play games in 1987 with hastily thrown-together groups of former college players -- many plucked from their jobs as cops, bouncers and construction workers."
No Settlement in Sight
TV ratings, not surprisingly, suffered in the wake of that strike. But eventually they recovered -- and the NFL became the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg, bringing in some $9 billion in annual revenue that the owners and the NFL Players Association can't figure out how to divvy up. Talks have broken down and media reports indicate a settlement is not in the immediate future. The players' union is reportedly encouraging its top prospects not to attend this year's draft, according to ESPN. And after the lockout began, the union decided to decertify itself. The players also filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league.
Though the media has reported on the potential economic fallout of an NFL strike, most people probably are not considering the potential cultural impact. Without football to fill up their weekend programming, networks may have to turn to such tried-and-true television stars as Donald Trump of NBC's "The Apprentice." And if that doesn't spur fans to press both sides to reach an agreement, nothing will.
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