The NFL Pisses on its fans… again

Someone in the front offices of the NFL is obsessed with exclusivity, no matter how much they screw fans in the process. Their decision to grant exclusive licensing rights to EA Sports for both the teams and the players is just another example of this. I find it difficult to believe that a single, exclusive, sweetheart deal such as this is worth more than licensing deals with multiple game studios. The NFL is in the position of power here – they hold the rights that EA absolutely needs to maintain the success of Madden. Whatever they’re charging EA for exclusivity, they could probably strongarm them into paying that much just for non-exclusive rights. The Madden franchise isn’t popular because gamers like listening to a senile, bloated, has-been coach spout the blatently obvious about computer graphics, it’s popular because it is a VERY well executed simulation of the game people love to watch on Sunday. They can play as their home team, play against their hated rival, trade for the player they always wanted on their team. They can pass with precision like Peyton Manning, fake everyone out with Michael Vick. Playing with “#7” for “Atlanta” doesn’t cut it. This exclusive deal may spawn interesting other flavors of football games, but it will do little but stagnate the NFL football simulation genre, drive prices up (EA won’t have to cut Madden to $30 to complete with Sega next year), and lower the total number of people playing NFL football on their game systems.

You can’t blame EA. They’re serving their customers just fine – Madden fans want to play Madden 2005/6/7/8/9 with the teams and players they see on TV, exclusive or not. The NFL is to blame here, and they have shown time and again their desire to serve corporate interests before they serve the fans whose devotion makes those corporate interests lucrative. Consider first, the blackout rules. In a city like Atlanta, dominated by transplants who didn’t grow up on Falcons football, it takes some extra work to get people to care about the local team. Until Vick came to town, most home games weren’t sold out, and when a game isn’t sold out, it doesn’t get televised locally. As a casual fan of the Bucs and Colts, why am I going to plunk own $40 for 2 tickets to see the local team that I have NO ties to play another team I have no ties to? I won’t. And if I can’t watch them on TV, I won’t DEVELOP ties to the team either. Brilliant. But the league would rather cave to paranoid, short-sighted owners, who somehow believe that the game being on TV keeps droves of people from buying tickets.

But that isn’t even the half of it. Let’s talk NFL Sunday Ticket, where people pay $200+ to be able to watch any NFL game from home for the entire season. But only if they’re on DirecTV. Dish Network and cable subscribers are completely excluded until something like 2010 – the NFL just signed an extension on this. Once again, I question whether the exclusivity money paid by DirecTV is REALLY that much more than the sum of the non-exclusive fees that could be extracted from all satellite providers, cable operators, and perhaps even webcasters. Some people can’t even get DirecTV, due to dish aiming issues, but the league would rather follow the guaranteed path. This also ignores intangible benefits. As a Bucs fan in Atlanta, and the Bucs not being very good this year, they haven’t been on broadcast TV very often. If I were more in touch with the team, I’d be more excited about them, I’d purchase more licensed merchandise, I might go out of my way to go to a game. As it stands, I can’t tell you too much about how the team is developing this year since I don’t have DirecTV and haven’t spent every Sunday at a sports bar. The combined audience for Dish, DirecTV, and digital cable would be absolutely huge, and could further bolster the popularity of the NFL. As it stands, Sunday Ticket is just some novelty that you heard your friend’s friend has.

Lastly, there are the TV contracts, with their byzantine restrictions. Most weeks, there are 14 games played in the 1 pm and 4 pm slots on Sunday. The MOST you can see of those is *3*. There are 11 games you cannot watch even if you want to. CBS and Fox have exclusive rights on these games, and in any given week, only one of them can show a “doubleheader”. If your local team is playing an early game at home on the doubleheader station, you don’t get the late game, even if the game is a sell out. What, people who have tickets to the game are going to skip it so they can watch the late game on TV? And even if they do, they’ve already paid for their ticket. Who cares? If the local team isn’t sold out, you don’t get that game either. You’re down to 1 out of 14 available games. What’s the alternative? Secondary rights. How many hundred stations are there on digital cable and satellite now? CBS and Fox are still going to pay big money if you give them first dibs on each week’s games in each market. Let TNT, ESPN2, Fox Sports, MTV, etc. bid on the rights to pick up the games that the local CBS/FOX declines to air. The effect would certainly be a net increase in the total number of viewers on Sunday. There is probably an assumption somewhere that people are going to watch whatever game is shown, which may be true for extremely hardcore fans. I like football. A lot. But if the 1 PM games suck, I’m going out to run errands. If the 4 PM games suck, I’m spending time with family and friends instead. Give me more options, and I’m more likely to carve out time for a game I find worth watching.

Not only does this arrangement suck, they just renewed their contracts with CBS and Fox for several more years, without a bidding process. How is this good for the NFL side of things? You can either extend a contract with networks, paying little more than their current rates, or you can have networks compete over who will have broadcast rights to one of the hottest commodities in sports. I wonder which would net more money? But why ask that, when the NFL has can grant exclusive rights instead.

Without fans, the NFL has nothing to sell. There are many networks, many broadcast mediums, game manufacturers, but only one NFL – they hold the power in those relationships. It’s the fans who are fickle, the fans give them influence over the distributors, so why do they continue to bow to these interests instead of recognizing simple ways to increase their fan base, thus improving the product they have to sell?