King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL moves more games from free TV to cable. Can poor people still be sports fans?

Published January 30, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

After months of often bitter negotiations that pitted the left pocket against the right, the NFL reached a deal with itself Saturday, awarding its own NFL Network a package of eight late-season night games, starting with a prime-time game that will create a Thanksgiving Day triple-header.

Various cable entities had reportedly been bidding on the package over the past few months, especially Comcast, which observers believed was hoping to launch a cable network to rival ESPN. Others reported to be in the running at one point or another had included USA and TNT.

Instead, it's NFL, the 2-year-old network you have to go to your friend's house to see. The network is available in about 40 million homes, which sounds like a lot but isn't.

It's a safe bet cable systems that now treat NFL Network as a third-tier channel on a par with the Canine Biography Network and VH1 Classic May Through September of 1986 (of "I want my VH1CM-S86-TV" fame) will bump it up into the neighborhood where ESPN, TNT and USA live.

The deal means a return to "Thursday Night Football," a failed experiment of days gone by. The NFL is such a behemoth that even its failures are pretty successful, but I just don't think America has been clamoring for NFL games on Thursday nights, and I don't think lifestyles are going to be altered so we can watch them.

One of the best things the NFL has going is the rhythm of its week.

There's the full slate of games on Sunday, including one in prime time, then the Monday night game, and then five off days, days spent first reviewing and chewing over the previous week's action, then, at midweek, Wednesday or Thursday, turning the attention to the next weekend.

The anticipation builds and builds as the workweek comes to a close. Matchups are examined, office pool sheets are filled out, fantasy lineups are chosen, bets are placed, smack is talked, tailgating and TV-watching plans are made. Then, finally, Sunday arrives and every game is a big event.

Thursday games throw a wrench into that rhythm. I mean for the fans. I don't care about the players having a short week to prepare. They're well-paid grown-ups and they can deal with a difficult work situation same as the rest of us.

An NFL game on a Thursday night isn't a big event. It's just another TV show. As in, "Let's see, 'The O.C.' or 'CSI'? Oh, there's a Chiefs-Chargers game on."

College football's proliferation, or oozing, across the calendar has contributed, I think, to that sport seeming less and less like its own big-event deal and more and more like a minor league for the NFL.

Gone is the idea that college football means Saturday afternoon or evening, with that same weekly rhythm and anticipation. Saturday's still the big day, of course, but now you can trip on a college football game any night of the week. If it's Tuesday, this must be the night of a Louisville-Toledo game on the Deuce.

But while those midweek games don't get Saturday ratings, they're a success for the cable networks that show them, mostly ESPN, because they get better numbers than the billiard reruns and raccoon wrestling that used to be on during weeknights. And when the TV people are happy, the colleges and conferences are happy, because they make more money.

But in the long term, midweek games have made college football start to look like a time filler, something to have on in the background while thinking about next week's NFL games.

Similarly, the question for the NFL wasn't "Would people rather watch an NFL game on Thursday night than Sunday afternoon?" It was, "Are more people going to watch the NFL Network on Thursday nights when there's a game on than were watching before?" Of course the answer to that is a rousing yes.

And the price was pretty much nothing. Those eight Thursday- and Saturday-night games were siphoned off of the Sunday afternoon packages that Fox and CBS re-upped for earlier this year.

Those two networks will pay a combined $1.335 billion per year starting next season, an increase of $285 million a year for the NFL over the last contract. So it doesn't sound like they're too disappointed to lose one game a week for the last few weeks of the season.

Analysts say the eight-game package could have fetched $400 million for the NFL, but that doesn't mean it's costing the league $400 million to launch its network into the top tier, not that that would be a bad investment. It doesn't cost anything to pass up potential income.

And even if it did, when you're making more than $3 billion a year from TV rights fees alone, $400 million is a little like 40 million homes: It sounds like a lot, and it's certainly a big number, but in context it's really not that much.

So what's happening here is that the NFL, like other major sports entities, is sliding toward more and more games being on pay TV. The league has a policy of showing all cable games on free, over-the-air TV in the home markets of the two teams involved, but that bone doesn't mean much if you're, say, a cableless Cowboys fan in San Antonio, which is Cowboys country but not part of the home market.

Too bad. The reality is if you're a sports fan without cable, the world is passing you by. Cable is where the money is because cable is where teams and leagues can control their own programming, and cable networks like ESPN can pay higher prices for programming than broadcast networks because they collect income from two sources, advertising and subscriber fees.

This is a sad thing because, with very few exceptions, the people who don't have cable -- and there aren't many of them in the scheme of things -- don't have cable because they're too poor to afford it. Sports have long since left poor people behind in the arena by pricing tickets beyond their means, and now they're in the early stages of leaving them behind on television and radio too.

Pensioners who have loved the Boston Red Sox through decades of futility were recently informed by the 2004 World Series champs that the number of games on free TV starting next year will be a convenient, easy-to-remember zero, except for the odd late-season Saturday game on Fox.

The St. Louis Cardinals this winter announced that their games are moving from the clear-channel behemoth KMOX to a smaller station the team bought an interest in, a move influenced by the rise of satellite radio, which figures to lessen the need for teams to broadcast on huge stations or cobble together a team network over a wide area.

I wonder if in the next decade or so the people being left behind, or the people representing those people, will begin to push back.

Nobody ever went broke with a business plan that targeted people with money and ignored people without it. But I wonder if some politician, somewhere, will mount an effective argument that if the sports industry is going to gorge at the public trough, in the form of stadium subsidies and tax breaks, it has a responsibility to make its product available to the public. All of it.

I don't know how that would work. Cable-bill subsidies maybe. A team-sponsored cable package for qualifying customers that includes the local broadcast stations plus the team's games. There are ways to take care of the people who are being shut out of the sports world for lack of funds.

Anyone wanting to talk about it can hold meetings on Thursday nights late in the football season.

This column has been changed since its original publication.

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