Out of Pocket: FOX in the NFL House

Article: “The Great NFL Heist: How Fox Paid for and Changed Football Forever” Author: Bryan Curtis
Publication Date: December 13, 2018

As a 36-year-old football fan, I remember life before the NFC went to FOX. This is one of the many things that places me amongst the Xennial generation. There are things we have come to take for granted that didn’t exist prior to FOX getting the NFL package. One of the most jarring of those is noticed when you watch a classic sporting event in 1993 or earlier and notice that there are long stretches of gameplay where the score isn’t displayed. That innovation (brought over from SkySports) was known as FoxBox, and now we can’t live without it.

The story of how the NFL got to FOX like many things isn’t a simple story. Instead, it starts in steps, and who better to write an oral history about the process than the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis? This is a phenomenal read, and you’ll love it if you’re a media nerd (such as myself). I will highlight some of my favorite parts of this extensive piece.

What happened in 1993 was that the old-line networks were coming under increasing pressure. All three were run by cost-cutters: ABC by Capital Cities, NBC by General Electric, and CBS by theater mogul Larry Tisch. After the 1990–91 recession, the cost-cutters complained, almost in union, that their NFL deals were leaving them in the red. “No way I am going to lose money on the NFL,” Tisch thundered.

Under its previous deal, CBS had paid $265 million a year for the NFC. The network calculated that it could break even if it paid the NFL $250 million a year. So Tisch did something audacious: He told his executives to offer the NFL no more than that figure, which amounted to a $15 million pay cut. Neal Pilson, the president of CBS Sports, was in a bind: How could he appease his boss and keep the rights to the NFC?

One of the worst kept secrets in media is that television networks lose money on rights deals for major sports and sporting events. So why pay? These events tend to be rated highly and can be plugged full of advertisement for the given network’s weekly programming. When the NFL isn’t on the air “NBC, CBS, and Fox’s viewership is 45% lower among men ages 18 to 49, a coveted demographic for advertisers.” So despite this cost, it becomes a deal that these networks have to engage in. They can hope to get some money back through advertising but that is limited.

So let’s flashback to 1993. Each time contracts were up, the NFL practically had three networks bidding on their own individual deals. ABC had Monday Night Football, NBC had the AFC slate of games, and CBS had the NFC. Cable television wasn’t what it is today, and CBS didn’t feel like it should keep paying $265 million. This is a bold move especially when they held the more valuable package. The NFC package (at the time) had Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles amongst other major markets. So how could this go wrong?

To put it simply, Fox came in with a pitch that focused on how they could present the game. David Hill (head of Sky Sports) came in explaining how they would give the NFL more cameras, more sound, and an exciting presentation that would be promoted year-round. Despite all of these things, the NFL didn’t exactly want to work with Fox. Much of the reason was that Fox wasn’t what it is today:

Preston Padden, Fox Broadcasting president of network distribution: There were about 60 cities in the United States where there was no fourth TV station to become our affiliate. CBS was saying to the NFL, “If you move these rights to Fox, in these 60 cities there will be no free over-the-air broadcast of the NFL.” Mr. Murdoch said, “You got to come to this meeting with the NFL TV committee.” Mr. (Rupert) Murdoch did not tell me what he was going to say. We stand up in front of the TV committee, and he says, “Within 60 days, Preston will get a secondary affiliation with some TV station in every one of these 60 markets.” I just about wet my pants.

Where CBS, ABC, and NBC had existed for decades Fox had only existed for a handful of years. It wasn’t available everywhere, but what it lacked in coverage it made up for with creativity and Rupert Murdoch’s (seemingly bottomless) pockets. CBS believed they had the latitude to call shots with the NFL, and Murdoch saw landing the NFL as tantamount to buying a network. He was such a visionary that he saw that acquiring the NFC rights would legitimize Fox overnight.

There is a suspenseful package that details how a CBS exec attempted to get the bid up to (then) NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s asking price of $295 million. When CBS that number, the exec runs to tell the NFL the news only to find out that Fox bid $395 million. The number was told to CBS head Larry Tisch and he refused to match. This marked a huge change in the climate of sports rights as explained by Steve Bornstein:

Steve Bornstein, ESPN president: When the league took that package from CBS and Tisch and sent it to Rupert and Chase at Fox, it changed the dynamic for the next 30 years. In the past, all the content that you were buying from the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball, the broadcaster had to maintain a profit on it. Now, you could rationalize that that’s how you build a network and get attention.

Realizing how big of a blow this was CBS tried to get a reel together to present the NFL to get the AFC package from NBC. What they learned was not only did NBC sign a $217 million deal that sealed them the rights to the AFC they would also get two Super Bowls over the duration of the deal.

Tagliabue: CBS came back the next day and said, “We’d like to go after the AFC package.” I had to tell them, “If you’re the loser on the first round, you don’t have a second round, even if we think we can get more in a second round. We’re not going to do that.” That was explicitly understood by both networks.

Just like that, it was over for CBS’ almost 40-year relationship with the NFL. What had to make it leave a sourer taste in their mouths is that this was all of their own doing. The NFL didn’t really want to move to Fox, but CBS overplayed their hand not realizing how eager Fox was to land the league. CBS didn’t stay out of the game long though as they went to outbid NBC for the ABC rights the next time the TV contracts were up.

The process of how the NFL landed on Fox is what interested me the most, but the entire article is fascinating. It gives a behind the scenes look on how the Fox courted John Madden, put together its studio show, and approached filling the rest of their announce teams. There are also insights from Jerry Jones who (along with Pat Bowlen) were the new power brokers who worked with Paul Tagliabue to not be so accommodating to the networks.

What we know is the relationship between Fox and NFL has been a mutually beneficial one. Fox became a legitimate network and has allowed Rupert Murdoch to extend his influence to start other networks (including Fox News). With the help of the Fox deal not only were the owners made richer, but so were the players. The NFL became a year-round product in a way that no other domestic sports league is.

What makes this article so important is that we are on the precipice of what could be another great change in sports broadcasting deals. In the past four years, the NFL has tested the waters by having games be streamed via Yahoo!, Twitter, and now Amazon Prime Video. Similar to how the broadcasts giants didn’t think the NFL would consider Fox, there is the thought that they wouldn’t risk taking their programming off of TV to go streaming. The NFL will go where the money is, but how long will networks have the money to stay in the game? That is the question we will have to wait to see the answer.

#transparentTuesdays: Resolutions & Ish

I’ve been living life by the seat of my pants.

It just happens that the seat is the cushion of a sofa. It’s a passive seat in front of a TV, adjacent to a laptop and holding an iPhone watching the world as life passes by. It’s even easier today than it was a decade ago. There is an endless chain of information, entertainment, and talk that makes it possible to fill your entire day without doing anything. There’s this urge to keep up with everything while falling behind on myself. It’s to the point that I don’t watch as much TV or sports as I used to but I know about the happenings.

That said, I’m better than I used to be and if I learned anything last year it is that better is a good thing. The problem is when I consider how I’ve lived my life better isn’t what it ultimately could be. Improvement is good but without intention, it is just a step in a direction that’s different from where you were. Progress is progress, but this year I want to do something different and I want to have a plan.

Before I go further, I have an admission. I’m the guy who used to look down at people who used the New Year as an arbitrary line of demarcation to start their life anew. The same guy who looked down upon the people who made resolutions only to fall short of them. I was the cynical asshole, but to go deeper I was a coward who was afraid to make a plan because I didn’t want to fail as well. I can see now how we all ultimately fall short of something but if you give a fair attempt the “better” you end up at is in a direction you can build off of.

In 2018 the following happened:

  • I got a divorce.
  • I discovered there’s a strong possibility I have ADHD.
  • I solidified the fact that I want to become a teacher.
  • I moved to a program that works with teenagers with emotional and behavioral disorders.
  • I dated in the summer and saw a version of myself I didn’t know existed.

These things (amongst others) are the reason why I feel much better about where I am going into 2019 than I was going into 2018. I just think of how much better I can be going into 2018 if I have a plan.

So while Cynical Tim will look down at current Tim, but I am writing a list of resolutions that will help guide me into the New Year. As a (newly minted) 36-year-old, I have an idea of the person I want to be. The relationships I want to have, and the way I want to move through the world. There’s a confidence that I want to feel as I move (despite admitting I don’t know what it feels like).

So here are some of the things I’m going to do this year:

    • Get tested for ADHD: This is the big one. It impacts everything else and I need to stop avoiding.

    • Go to therapy: I’ve been to five different therapists in my life and I’m still looking for one that I click with. Therapy has definitely helped in the past, but I haven’t had one that has provided what I’m looking for.

    • Enroll in grad school: If I want to teach I have to make a move. Sure, it’ll bring me into more student loan debt but I can’t avoid this step if I want to teach.

    • Budget, budget, budget!: I’ve avoided doing this for years, but I started at the end of 2018. This is another building block that will help me in other areas.

    • Volunteer: Working with high school students has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. It allows me to see the difference I can make in the lives of others. I believe volunteering will help ratchet that up.

    • Vacation: Not necessarily go to an exotic locale (though that wouldn’t be bad), I’m thinking more about weekend trips to visit friends. I haven’t taken a real vacation since the spring of 2014 (yikes!).

    • Write (almost) daily: Blogging has been a huge help for me. Writing about anything feels like a release for me and it puts me in a good space. It is self-care that I have been avoiding for far too long.
    • Exercise: Doesn’t have to be a gym membership (though I’m considering it), just has to be consistent working out.

    • Create: I wrote more last year, but I want to be intentional as well and create more. To stop being afraid and work to complete a project.

    • Go on at least 10 dates: I’ll write more about my experience dating, but I will say I want to try more of it this year. Without worry that it will become something, or that I will fail.
    • Take More Risks!: At the end of 2019, I want to be able to look back and have a year that was full of adventure and growth that is predicated on adventure. I also wouldn’t mind failure as I’m tired of avoiding it.
    • Learn a new skill: Doesn’t have to be a job skill could be a craft, but I want to learn how to do something new every year.
    • Be More Present in Relationships: Lastly, this is the most important of the bunch. I want to reach out and not be so content living in my own bubble. Being comfortable on my own is a good first step, but being connected with my people is even more important. In 2019, I pledge to set out and be vulnerable and transparent in how I feel.

 

 

 

That’s it. There’s no narrative that I’m stringing. Just a day to have an outlook toward the rest of the year. I have a ton more things I want to accomplish but this is the foundation. If I fall short or I don’t even attempt any (or all) of these things I’ll bring it up here… this is my attempt to hold myself accountable.

So here’s to a New Year, and the death of my cynicism.

Happy New Year!

-Tim