COMMENTARY : Antitrust threat prompted NFL’s reversal

Posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2008

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The winners were the New England Patriots, football fans and even the NFL Network.

No explanation is necessary about what unbeaten New England accomplished against the New York Giants on Saturday night.

And the millions of fans who watched the simulcast on the NFL Network, CBS and NBC were rewarded with an engrossing game that almost lived up to its enormous pregame hype.

How much hype ?

The NFL Network proudly boasts it aired more than 62 hours of pregame hoopla last week, including complete replays of six Patriots games.

The network seemingly covered everything except Tom Brady taking showers.

Is any sporting event worthy of that type of coverage ?

Interviewed before the game by NFL Network reporter Adam Schefter, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “The simulcast was made for a single reason — fan interest.” He added that the game “has potential historical consequences, and we wanted our fans to see it.” A single reason ?

No mention was made of the pressure put on the NFL Network to open up coverage as a result of a letter sent to Goodell by two prominent members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — a letter that threatened to consider the league’s antitrust exemption.

Faced with political threats and flooded with messages from angry fans, Goodell really had no alternative but to open up the game to “free” television.

So the network turned what was becoming a sour lemon into tasty lemonade.

The network also scored a public relations coup, since several promotional spots lauding its 24 / 7 football coverage were featured throughout the simulcast and shown on the two commercial networks. And national big-ticket sponsors certainly weren’t unhappy with the three-network exposure.

The game also allowed viewers to appreciate the work of Cris Collinsworth, who could be the best network analyst working in NFL booths.

Collinsworth’s explanation of key plays was superb, and he never hesitated to single out players who goofed, particularly on defensive coverage.

An example: Collinsworth wondered why Giants defensive back James Butler was nowhere near the Patriots’ Randy Moss on the 65-yard record-setting touchdown pass from Brady that broke the game open.

Bryant Gumbel, his play-by-play partner who has improved since his near-disastrous start last season, still talks too fast and often jumps to conclusions about results of key plays before officials make decisions.

While NFL Network leaders are basking in the success of their “Super Bowl,” they have to be thinking about coming months of testy negotiations with cable giants Time Warner and Comcast and other systems that have balked at offering the NFL Network to viewers because of rights fees.

As of now, the NFL Network is in only 43 million of the nation’s 113 million TV households.

Another worry: The NFL certainly doesn’t want a Senate antitrust committee following its every move.

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