Never has the concept of selling sizzle over steak been as obvious as in the ludicrous display of greed and pettifoggery known as the NFL Network.
The NFL has become the sports behemoth of America through careful management of what is, essentially, saturation coverage of its games over free, or basic cable (ESPN), television. Every NFL game is televised. Every fan sees all of the local team’s away games, and any home games that are sold out 72 hours before kickoff. ESPN games must be made available to the local markets of the participating teams via free, over-the-air television. The Golden Goose cranked out eggs at an unprecedented rate for an industry that doesn’t really make anything.
The NFL, not content with billions of dollars a year from the television networks, decided last year to cut out the middle man, and started showing games on their house organ, the NFL Network. That was okay, as far as it went; NFL Network was on most basic cable systems.
Then the league held a gun to the goose’s head, and started demanding cable providers pay more for NFL Network than for such staples of basic cable as CNN. Cable companies responded by making the NFL Network either a subscription service (like HBO or Showtime), or by including it in a “tier” of sports channels, available for an additional fee. The uproar was great across the land, peaking when Dallas and Green Bay played a critical game in November; neither city had the NFL Network available in its local cable system. The league relented, cried crocodile tears, and started selling the rights to local stations. Channel 20 here in Washington paid upwards of $700,000 to air the Redskins-Chicago Bears game a few weeks ago.
Now the New England Patriots, led by Bill “Dr. Strangelove” Belichick, are gunning to be the only team in history to win all sixteen regular season games. (“History,” in this case, means thirty years, as the sixteen-game season has only been in place since 1978. Hardly a time span of Biblical proportions, even if you go with that “the world is six thousand years old” thing they’d have you believe.) Stations in the New York and Boston areas paid through the nose for the rights; the rest of the country was still held hostage by the cable/NFL standoff.
This is America. Health care and a proper education are negotiable, but watching a football game on free television is a God-given right. Senators became involved; Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) staff continued negotiations even on Christmas day. (Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has apparently resolved all the civil liberties, unwarranted searches and wiretaps, and Justice Department scandals to his satisfaction.)
On Wednesday, the NFL announced both CBS and NBC would simulcast NFL Network’s coverage. This gives viewers across the country at least two channels to pick from; those in the metropolitan New York and Boston areas get four! (NBC, CBS, whatever local channel bought the rights originally, and NFL Network, for those who get it.) And it’s the same coverage! Literally. You’ll have the chance to flip from channel to channel and see the same thing, described by the same announcers. Bryant Gumbel available on four New York outlets at once! (He’ll probably wank his elbow out of its socket reading the newspaper articles.)
Here’s the best part: the game doesn’t mean dick. Both teams have clinched their playoff spots. The Pats’ opponent, the New York Giants, get the fifth seed whether they win or lose. Their goal is for no one to get hurt. The Pats can be expected to play pedal-to-the-metal; they’ve done it all year in meaningless situations. (Such as being up 40+ points.) Giants’ coach Tom “Rat Face” Coughlin has said he’ll play his starters; how much is questionable, with a playoff game to follow in a week.
I’m skipping this one. I missed the Steelers against St. Louis last week, and survived with no obvious psychic scars. (I live out of market for Steelers games and won’t pay for NFL Network.) I hope the Pats win, complete their 16-0 season, then lose in the playoffs, making it meaningless. Maybe a key player’s injury in this meaningless game could render him unavailable. Nothing career-threatening; a sprain or a pulled hammy will do.
Don’t get me wrong: I like football, and watch a fair amount of it. The NFL would do well to remember their success grew from providing free access to their fans, and not jerking them around any more than necessary. Golden geese are not immortal.