Working the network

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 20, 2004

In case you hadn't heard, ESPN went on the air 25 years ago (seems like a big anniversary; too bad ESPN didn't promote it). At the time, people scoffed that a television network dedicated 24 hours a day to sports would never work.

Ten months ago, the NFL launched a network dedicated to itself – a one-sport, in-house 24-hour channel. No one scoffed. No one doubted it would succeed. Instead, television executives wondered if this were the future, sports leagues taking ownership of the media.

Judging by the early returns, it could be. In the history of cable television no network ever has reached 20 million homes in its first year. It took the NFL Network 10 months to reach 22 million, a number that grows almost daily.

If you have the thing and you love football, you know why. The NFL Network is irresistible.

Host Rich Eisen, imported from ESPN for instant credibility, attributes the network's fast start first and foremost to the popularity of the league. NFL football is "pretty much the No. 1 sport going on right now," Eisen says. "The fact is that there is interest in a 24-hour channel in our sport.

"No other sports league is as successful as the NFL. Right now it might be difficult to get the NHL Network off the ground."

This is the first full season for the network – it launched in week 10 last season – and it is determined to be the place to go for football fans. Its advantage is obvious. Since the NFL owns the network, the access to coaches, players, locker rooms, private conversations, sidelines and just about everything else is unparalleled.

The network relies heavily on the exceptional work of NFL Films, which now must turn around its material overnight rather than patch together end-of-the-season videos.

"[We've] challenged them from being an art house to, for lack of a better term, a sausage factory," Eisen said.

The network also has time on its side. Want to watch the entire Marvin Lewis Monday press conference? This is the spot. Want to hear the whole John Fox pregame locker room pep talk? Here you are.

And this is why the NFL Network, while not the first of its kind or the first attempt by sports leagues to draw fans into in-house media, will be the standard bearer.

The NBA already has its own television network, NBA TV. Baseball is in the planning stages of its own.

All major leagues have their own web sites and deals with broadcast partners – from CBS to local radio – call for the approval of the announcers. That's a lot of bought media.

This is where credibility comes into play and is a challenge for the NFL. The network is yet to have a Sunday night wrap-up show, but probably will. How pointed will criticism of bonehead plays and coaching decisions be?

Eisen insists he has not been told any topic is taboo and has discussed everything from steroids to coaching hot seats. While there won't be any investigative reports, probably 95 percent of the coverage will be similar to independent media.

The NFL always has been ahead of the curve when it came to relationships with the media. Pete Rozelle, a former public relations man, turned Sunday afternoons (and then Monday nights) into must-see TV for sports fans. The Super Bowl is now a national holiday, part for the game, part for the hoopla, commercials and halftime entertainment.

The NFL Network is building on that. Sort of.

"This is a wardrobe malfunction-free zone," Eisen noted.

Other than that, no detail is too minor. The network broadcast hours of shuttle runs at the spring rookie combines, and provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the debate on instant replay at a recent owners meeting.

"I called it NFL C-Span," said Eisen. "But it was great. You watched Bill Belichick get up to the mike to talk to the group. Bill Cowher did the same. All the owners were in the room."

You think that's boring?

I wouldn't scoff.