Loss of season would have made impact on bottom dollar

Rumors of the NFL season’s demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Still, the threat of a season-long lockout had the networks shaking like a knock-kneed quarterback, in this case facing a blitz of advertisers looking for make-goods. But the loss of a football season would have had a trickle-down effect on other parts of the biz as well, from videogames to radio to yes, even fantasy games.

As if to acknowledge the wringer the league put its broadcast partners through, the NFL has front-loaded the season with premiere matchups, serving up the action with a bang for auds and advertisers.

NBC will open Week 1 on Sept. 8 with a titanic Thursday night clash between the last two Super Bowl champs, the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, from Lambeau Field.

On Sept. 11, marking the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, the New York Giants will visit the Washington Redskins in the second game of Fox’s Sunday afternoon doubleheader. Also on Sept. 11, the New York Jets will host the Dallas Cowboys on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” will boast its usual lineup of compelling tussles, including the Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions in Week 5 and Giants-Saints in Week 12.

CBS will serve up its AFC fare with such notable rivalries as the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 (Sept. 11), and the first of the two blood feuds between interconference rivals the Jets and New England Patriots (Week 5, Oct. 9). The rematch will take place Week 10 on NBC’s Sunday night telecast.

While any regular-season NFL game delivers a ratings boost, big games can set the tone for a season, particularly one in which the league must win back any fans disgruntled by the battle between millionaire players and billionaire owners over how to split the league’s roughly $9 billion in yearly revenues.

For networks, with the fall TV primetime season on tap, the marquee matchups mean more than just ratings.

“We can run promos inside our NFL coverage to launch new primetime shows, in addition to the World Series and other sports programming,” says Bill Wanger, head of programming and research for Fox.

Wanger estimated that a game between the Giants-Redskins, or Cowboys-49ers, with kickoff at 4:15 p.m. EST could draw an audience of 25 million. And the promotional sweet spot doesn’t end when the game does.

“Following the ‘Game of the Week’ is the postgame show (‘The OT’),” Wagner says. “That’s a top 10 show in and of itself; it usually wins its time period.”

ESPN, which opens its 17-game “Monday Night Football” slate with a pair of games, including the early-season Super Bowl favorite Patriots at Miami, recently hired five new analysts, including Bill Parcells and Jerry Rice, and unveiled a new studio. It’s a no-brainer why the NFL is so important to the top sports cable network: During the 2010 regular season, ESPN’s 17 “MNF” broadcasts averaged 14.6 million viewers, an 8.8 rating with men 18-34, 9.9 with men 18-49 and 10.4 with men 25-54 — far and away the top numbers for any programming on the sports cabler.

Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, says the NFL’s importance continues to grow in the business partly because an overwhelming percentage of its audience watches the games in real time.

“People want to see live programming, the live social aspect with friends, so they can talk smack to each other,” LaPlaca says. “It’s DVR proof. It’s really the ultimate reality TV.”

Ad buyer Gary Carr of New York-based TargetCast agrees. “It’s not DVR’ed, so most of the ratings come from live,” he says. “It’s a very engaged male audience that sits there eating and drinking and watching the commercials.”

But there’s another reason the networks are thrilled to avoid losing a season; many of them are heavily invested in fantasy football, which some sources estimate is worth about $800 million, delivering a dedicated online audience in a desirable demographic and income level.

Some of the biggest players in the fantasy arena include Yahoo, Disney (which owns ESPN), CBS and the NFL itself. (It’s estimated that some 20 to 30 million people participate in various sports fantasy leagues yearly.)

A fantasy bonus for networks is that players are more likely to watch a game live to the end, even if it’s lopsided or has little impact on actual standings.

“Fantasy leagues are a real boon,” notes Chicago Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal. “They create interest in games (fans would normally) have no interest in whatsoever.”

The NFL also helps the vidgame biz, Rosenthal says. The season raises the league’s profile at a time when videogame releases are taking place — at the beginning of the season and in December, around the holidays, when interest is building for the playoffs.

And without football, what would sports talkradio stations have to chew on? And how would NFL betting-line experts, many of whom advertise on such shows, survive dishing “absolute locks” on college games alone?

With so many different interests tied to the league, it’s small wonder rights packages, once considered an option by some networks a decade or two ago, are now required product.

Carr says there used to be a time when one network might bid to acquire NFL rights just to keep it from its competitors. “Now everybody has it,” he says. “There’s even talk that the NFL will create an eight-game schedule for Turner next year.”

For now, however, let the 2011 games begin. Let the cash flow. n

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