Penalty on the NFL

Saturday, January 05
As the NFL playoffs begin today in the wake of the tempest over last Saturday's New England-New York Giants game, which was originally confined to the NFL Network, football fans are probably worried that the day will come when post-season games disappear onto a costly cable tier that may or may not be available on their system. They should worry, as the demand by fans for professional football is generating a brawl for fans' dollars that resembles the Patriots-Giants game at its chippiest.

The NFL Network, formed by the NFL in 2003, advertises itself as "every football fan's dream," and provides all things NFL 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That's fine if you're the kind of fan who has already drawn up a chart for April's NFL Draft or wants to watch the 1969 Jets-Colts Super Bowl game on a Wednesday afternoon in April, but there are not enough fans to justify the existence of this channel.

The network is currently waging a public relations war with Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter Communications, which have not reached a financial agreement to pick up the network. It is a sound strategy to pick a fight with the cable giants, who are generally hated by everyone, but the NFL Network does not fit the profile of David against the Goliaths.

Most NFL fans were surely content to receive all the games they needed over FOX, NBC and CBS on basic cable, and regard the NFL Network less as a dream than a nightmare that cost them the Green Bay-Dallas game, the biggest contest of this NFC season. If the cable giants don't put it on a basic tier, however, fans will eventually have to cough up extra money to see their favorite teams.

The telecast of the Patriots and Giants on the NFL Network would have deprived millions of fans from seeing the Pats go for an undefeated season. Bowing to pressure, the NFL backed down and allowed the game to be simulcast on CBS and NBC, but there's no guarantee that this scenario couldn't repeat itself, and soon.

As is the case in most corporate wars, there are no good guys to root for here. That said, the NFL could end this debate by canceling what is no more than a niche channel. Our judgment: a 15-yard penalty against the NFL and its network for roughing the fans.


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