The Critical 'I'

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Sunday, December 14, 2003

HOW THE NFL MADE FOX
crazy like a fox
The next time you get indignant over how many millions/billions of dollars television networks will pay to a sports league for broadcast rights, keep in mind what happened ten years ago this past weekend. Fox did the unthinkable in 1993 by stealing the NFL's National Football Conference television rights from CBS for $1.58 billion over four years. As a result, it transformed itself from a pseudo-network to a full-fledged television power.

Having the NFL legitimized the network, and gave it a platform to promote its shows to a wide audience, especially in the coveted young adult male category.

"This really became very much the face of the Fox network in many ways," said Ed Goren, now Fox Sports’ president.

Soon, the network had signed deals with the NHL and Major League Baseball. A NASCAR deal followed in 1999, and races began airing on the network in 2001. Fox’ prime-time lineup was also bolstered as top-rated shows were plugged frequently during the NFL broadcasts.

"It’s earthshaking. It’s a watershed change. The power of the NFL is even underestimated by the industry today," [former president of CBS Sports Neal] Pilson said. "No other entertainment or sports property gets anywhere near that number of viewers. It’s the dominant entertainment-sports programming on television today by a huge margin."

While losing the NFL "crippled" CBS, Pilson said, Fox’s prime-time ratings rose almost immediately. Fox was the fourth-rated network among adults 18-49 the season before it got the NFL contract. Last season, it trailed only NBC.

Think the conditions that led Fox to make this bold move don't exist today? Tell that to NBC, which is watching its once-vaunted primetime lineup disintegrate (e.g., the approaching end of ratings powerhouses "Friends" and "Frasier", and the spectacular failure of designated successor anchor series "Coupling", among others). Not so coincidentally, NBC doesn't currently broadcast any of the four major sports leagues. Watch for the Peacock Network to make a hard pitch at the NHL and other leagues shortly as their present broadcast deals expire.