Now’s The Time for NFL Network

Quick game of word association, first network that comes to mind when I say NFL Draft? ESPN. First person? Mel Kiper, Jr.  Second?  Mel’s hairstylist. Alright, point taken. ESPN has owned the market on NFL draft coverage, building it from an intimate gathering of football faithful into a full-scale event that overshadows the NBA and NHL playoffs. Over time, ESPN built a strong, devoted community among football fans – arguably the biggest, most dedicated fan base of any American sport. As the go to place for draft coverage, ESPN continued to expand the event, monetizing it more and more each year.

This is the problem for the NFL Network. To become a viable option, the network needs to won the draft. They need to be the go to place for all things draft, drive the ratings, have the exclusive interviews. This year, they stepped up their coverage, both leading in and during the draft, receiving more praise from media critics than ESPN – or less criticism, essentially a compliment by critics. ESPN ratings fell slightly to a 3.4 HH. Various possibilities exist, notably the new 3 PM start time, or possibly the NFL Network is starting to cannibalize ESPN’s loyal following. Adam Schefter was widely praised by fans and critics for his analyst work, preferred over the Todd McShay-Kiper Jr. debates on ESPN.

Owning the draft is one step, next the NFL needs to make a commitment on broadcasting games. Last year’s 8-game package, with some Thursdays and some Saturdays, was non-committal. The one carrot they owned, the Giants-Patriots game, NFL suits gave away to please fans. If the NFL Network wants to be in the business of game coverage – and its in their best interests – the network needs a consistent, enticing schedule. At last week’s network up front, the network announced the 2008 8-game package will start three weeks earlier and include 7 Thursday games and one Saturday. They intend to own Thursday nights, make NFL Network the exclusive destination for all football fans on Thursday’s. Smart move.

NFL Media holds another asset, Inside the NFL, the highly-acclaimed weekly show that HBO declined to renew. The show already has a loyal following within the pay TV community, NFL Network can drag more eyeballs in by broadcasting the show, while strengthening its portfolio.

If the NFL Network intends to become a serious player it needs to develop a strong brand, and a loyal following.  By building the network as the place for Thursday night football, the home of Inside the NFL, and eventually the destination for NFL draft coverage, then developing a robust marketing campaign to strengthen the network’s association with those concepts, the viewers will come in droves. With that momentum, pressure will continue to mount on MSO’s, and NFL network will position itself to gain carriage. The network took a small win in Illinois court when a recent ruling forced Comcast to go to arbitration with the network. Some fans may initially reject the network for controlling content many people can’t view, but the fans will pressure the cable providers – case in point, the YES Network and SNY in New York a few years ago.

NFL suits hold another trump card – digital rights. If MSO’s continue to hold out on moving NFL Network to the digital basic tier, the network can decide to stream games over the Internet, a la March Madness or MLB.tv. To eradicate the fans who pay extra for the network, charge a subscription, or per game charge to watch, as opposed to ad-supported streams.  Follow suit with other programs. Controlling the digital rights gives the league more avenues to grab viewers attention through mobile and digital initiatives. Opportunities to grab more viewers, build the network.

NFL Network must decide if it plan to be a serious player. If so, now is the time to make its move.

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