Commentary > SportsBiz
Are you ready for non-stop football?
Two new all-football networks head rush of new dedicated sports offerings to expanding cable lineup.
October 7, 2003: 5:37 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Is there such a thing as too much football when it comes to the U.S. television audience? Two new cable networks will soon find out.

Last weekend was the first broadcast for The Football Network, which provides a range of games and highlights from all manner of football -- high school, college, even the Canadian Football League -- but not from the National Football League.

Next month comes the league's own entry into the fast-growing world of dedicated sports networks. The NFL Network, owned by the league and with a $100 million bankroll to back it, will take to the air on DirecTV, which reaches more than 10 million homes. The only element of the NFL missing from the new network will be live broadcasts, for which the league already collects billions a year.

The two join other dedicated sports programming, from established channels like The Golf Channel, The Speed Channel, the Outdoor Life Network and NBA TV, as well as other recent additions including College Sports Television, the Tennis Channel and Fuel, an extreme sports network. There are even plans for The Ice Channel, dedicated to figure skating.

Rather than being simply competitors to each other, the flood of networks dedicated to the hard-core fans of each sport can actually help one another grab space on the rapidly expanding cable and satellite dial. Since different networks only get between pennies to about 25 cents a month per subscriber, selling the networks individually to cable subscribers probably isn't practical, said sports television expert Neal Pilson.

"Programming that is designed for a very targeted audience now has an opportunity to produce and deliver programming as we move to a 500 or 1,000 channel universe," said Pilson. "Having 20 digital sports channels for $2 a month offers economies of scale. The consumer doesn't have to buy them one at a time, which has marketing difficulties written all over it."

But only about 30 percent of households have access to the premium cable or satellite television, meaning it will take a while, if ever, for many of the networks to attract the audience and advertisers needed for profitability. NBA TV, started in 1999, with backing from the basketball league, is expected to make its first profit this year, according to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

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Pilson believes the NFL Network is virtually certain to succeed. While he isn't ready to write-off the Football Network, he does believe that there is a risk of failure for many of the lesser networks.

"They're pushing the envelope a little further, looking to find niche (viewers) who like anything to do with football," he said. "I don't think they would disagree that their challenge is greater than the NFL Network, which has the brand attached and very deep pockets."

Even the NFL Network might have trouble getting on the basic cable lineup the way it wants to, said one cable sports executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"They don't have games. NBA TV has games, and they eventually found out that no one wants them outside of the premium tier," said the executive. "It (football) is a good niche to be in, but the cable operators are going to take a wait and see attitude."

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The two pigskin networks both say they have the war chests and the long-term business plans. The NFL's $100 million investment in its channel should be enough to last five to seven years until it's making a profit.

Football Network CEO Jerry Solomon, a former agent, said that he has tens of millions raised by investors, and a business plan that does not count on profits for four or five years.

"Our business plan always was put in place with the understanding the NFL was there and they're going to do what they're going to do," he said.

The Baton Rouge, La.,-based network has hired about 70 employees, including Rick Gentile, former executive producer of CBS Sports who is the network's programming chief.

Both networks believe that they can support round-the-clock, year-round programing.

"There is an offseason for football on television and that's a huge void we'll be able to fill," said Solomon.

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The NFL Network has signed former ESPN anchor Rich Eisen to be its lead on-air personality, and expects to make liberal use of NFL Films footage to attract viewers. By being on DirecTV, it has a ready viewership -- more than 1.4 million customers who pay $209 a year to get the service's exclusive package of virtually all NFL games played each Sunday.

The network has no cable distribution yet, but it hopes to be in 20 million homes by next August, and 50 to 60 million homes in five years, said Adam Shaw, head of distribution. Tens of million of regular football viewers will make the new channel more than a niche product, Shaw argues.

Solomon's Football Network, operating without the NFL backing or even the highlights of its games that fans can find on a multitude of other sports programming, will have the tougher course of success. The college games at this point are Division 1AA, the second-tier of teams, but those games will also be sold to local broadcasters, as will the network's high school games. Solomon hopes to show Division 1A games and maybe even NFL highlights eventually.

At this point the network is available in fewer than 300,000 homes with cable, although Solomon is talking with satellite television operators and other cable systems.  Top of page

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