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Today’s NFL: a brave new media world?

2007 September 7
by Skip Sauer

As we mentioned previously, the media are buzzing over the new approach of the NFL to media. The rule limiting online video at non-NFL sites is particularly nettlesome and controversial. Michael McCarthy’s story at USAToday, “NFL calls own number in new media game plan” describes the move:

On the Internet, the NFL took hands-on control of NFL.com from CBS SportsLine last fall and has relaunched the site with more video content, according to the league. NFL.com, and the 32 individual team websites, offer one thing other sports and news websites can’t match: highlights from games that can be tailored to focus on each fan’s favorite players and teams.

The league also is trying to boost the relevance of its four-year-old NFL Network by running more exclusive programming, including eight prime-time games on Thursdays and Saturdays late in the regular season, three college bowl games and the NFL’s college scouting combine in the spring.

MLB.com has turned into a significant revenue-generator for baseball, so it only makes sense for the NFL to pursue a similar strategy. But the issue has become intertwined with “controlling the message” that is put forth by the media. As McCarthy puts it:

The nation’s richest and most powerful sports league has launched a behind-the-scenes effort to seize greater control over what fans see, read and hear — and chart an even more lucrative course for itself in the process. It’s taking a series of steps to drive more fans and advertisers toward its own NFL Network cable channel and NFL.com website. And at a time when the NFL is trying to clean up its image by cracking down on athletes who run afoul of the law, the league also is imposing new — critics say onerous — restrictions on how the independent media cover its players, coaches and teams.

Together, the moves represent an unprecedented attempt by the NFL to manage how it’s portrayed to the public. They also could offer a glimpse of where sports programming is headed: Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, now an image consultant and adviser to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, predicts sports fans soon will confront an increasingly cluttered media landscape in which more sports leagues, and college conferences, offer their own TV channels and websites.

On the fundamentals, this is right on the money. We are in a period where a dominant trend is disintermediation, literally speaking, in broadcast coverage of sports. More and more coverage is being produced by the “upstream” firm, i.e. a team (as in the Yankees and YES, or in a more limited way, by Notre Dame and NBC) or a league. The Big Ten Network is leading the way in college (and with App State beating Michigan, what a debut! Sorry, Rod).

But I think the issue of image control is overrated. The Michael Vick and Pacman Jones episodes show that when negative issues arise, media spin is difficult or impossible for the NFL to control. You can’t keep the cameras away from the perp walk.

The NFL is pushing existing media aside to make way for its own production. It can do this because today’s broadcast and broadband technology enable it to bypass an intermediary and former ally. It’s not about image. It’s simply about the money.

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