Network problems

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Super Bowls in England. Pro Bowls before Super Bowls. Hold the NFL draft in prime time. What will Roger Goodell think of next?

Goodell, the fast-thinking and fast-acting commissioner of the NFL, will lead the league's owners through a one-day meeting Tuesday in Philadelphia. After a year in which Goodell has received praise (he was ranked No. 1 among the 100 most influential people in sports in the Oct. 8 edition of BusinessWeek), he might start to face difficult questions and perhaps even some resistance. That's what happens when you start to talk about money with a bunch of billionaires.

While the meeting is not expected to include any substantial voting issues, there will be a number of financial reports to address. In particular, a discussion on the progress of the NFL Network is expected.

In addition, Goodell will likely be asked again about his comments last week about London hosting a future Super Bowl and his suggestion last month that the Pro Bowl gets moved up to the weekend before the Super Bowl. Goodell is also expected to announce that the NFL draft will be restructured, moving at least part of the first round to prime time in an effort to capitalize on its popularity.

But the discussion that could cause the most angst regards the league's cable network, which lost a court ruling in May that allowed Comcast to move the Network from popular programming packages to a less widely distributed tier of sports channels.

In the words of one high-ranking team executive: "We're down from being in nine million homes on one network to about 750,000. Frankly, it's embarrassing."

That embarrassment may lead to changes.

Chief among those changes could be that the NFL Network will lose the package of Thursday and Saturday games it started broadcasting last year. The network is scheduled to show eight games this season, starting with the Atlanta Falcons playing host to the Indianapolis Colts on Thanksgiving night.

Two team executives said that package of games is worth approximately $350 million if sold to a network. That's far more than the league stands to make right now with its current cable distribution numbers.

As a result, views on the network are mixed.

"The NFL and the owners are committed to making the network go," said Seth Palansky, communications director for NFL Network.

While that sounds good, actually making it "go" could be quite complex.

"Damned if you do or damned if you don't," one owner said. "We all love the idea of the network, but the strategy of how to make it viable is tough. You're a long-term project in a group of people where a lot of them are thinking short term."

In fact, the changes could be even deeper. At least two NFL owners have talked about disbanding the network altogether.

"If we don't have the distribution, we're not going to make any money at it," one owner said. "Sure, we could eventually make some power play with the networks if we really wanted to, but you have to build toward that and it takes a lot of money to do that. And a lot of time. Then you're talking about lobbying groups and government interference. It could get really ugly.

"Ultimately, we can win all those battles. But, in the process, it could be unbelievably expensive and we have other owners out there with a lot of debt who have no appetite for that. Plus, we could alienate the fans with all this stuff. Right now, we're on every major network. Everybody wants to be part of the NFL and they pay a big price to be part of it. If you take that away, are we risking the exposure we get? … So you win all the battles, but you lose the war."

Still, the talk of disbanding the network appears premature.

"I don't see that happening. But I will say this: The league spends a lot more on the Network than we ever did on NFL Europe and you see what happened to NFL Europe," said the team executive, referring to the closure this summer of the minor league system in Europe. The league spent 16 years trying to make it work.

However, flirtation with Europe is not over as evidenced by next weekend's game in London's Wembley Stadium between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. While a Super Bowl would have obvious logistical issues to consider, some of the thinking behind it has to do with the expansion of the game itself.

To some league insiders, the game is quickly outgrowing many American cities, such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Detroit, which hosted the game in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

"The game is outgrowing those cities," a league source said. "We're getting to the point where we're limited to the number of places you can go and that's a bad situation. … There's no place in California because the stadiums are all terrible."

For instance, San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which was the last California site to hold a Super Bowl in 2003, doesn't have the power capacity now needed for the event. The league and television networks had to bring in generators to make sure they had enough power.

"It was a nightmare to do the game in San Diego," a league source said. "From the power to whether it rained because the upper deck doesn't drain, it was just a nightmare."

Thus, the talk about London by Goodell is motivated just as much out of necessity as it is out of interest.

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