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Going on Offense

11/25/2007 7:00 PM Eastern

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would be willing to consider negotiating an equity stake in the embattled NFL Network to secure long-term carriage with key operators.

Goodell went on the offensive during a conference call with reporters Nov. 20, two days before the 35 million-home NFL Network, which has been engaged in ongoing disputes with leading cable operators Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, kicked off its second season of eight primetime contests with the Indianapolis Colts-Atlanta Falcons game on Thanksgiving night.

He was asked whether the NFL — as Major League Baseball did with carriers for its MLB Channel, slated for a linear launch in 2009 — would consider the possibility of selling equity interests in the NFL Network to a Comcast or a Time Warner as a means to reach some sort of closure. Goodell prefaced his remarks by noting “that’s one of the reasons why independent programmers are now talking to the FCC” and why the agency wants to examine whether cable has become too dominant and is using its “distribution leverage inappropriately in that case.”

Goodell then noted: “Again, everything is a negotiation. There’s tremendous value in the NFL Network as an asset, more strategically than anything to the NFL. But that is something that I know that they are clearly interested in, and we would negotiate on any terms.”

Unfortunately, from a league perspective, Goodell said there weren’t any carriage negotiations with cable companies like Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems or Suddenlink Communications going on at press time. Operators have held the line against NFL Network’s game plan, which calls for digital-basic positioning at a monthly subscriber rate of 70 cents for a service they maintain holds minimal value beyond its “run to the playoffs” package of eight late-season Thursday- and Saturday-night games.

The NFL Network in May lost a court ruling that enabled Comcast to migrate the network to a sports tier.

That decision, which the league is appealing, has resulted in a major drop in its footing with the nation’s largest cable operator: from around 9 million homes last year to less than 1 million this season, according to Goodell.

“The fact is that the vast majority of our customers have elected not to receive NFL Network,” Comcast replied in a statement. “Under our agreement with the NFL, which the league negotiated and signed, we offer the NFL Network as part of our Sports Entertainment Package. This is the best and fairest way to provide the NFL’s expensive programming to customers, because viewers who want to watch the channel will be able to see it, while others who prefer not to receive it will not be forced to pay.”

Goodell, without naming distributors, said cable companies lacking NFL Network contracts are disingenuously telling subscribers deals could soon be struck.

“We are not in negotiations, we are not close to a deal,” Goodell said, adding that fans “should not be lulled into this so that they wake up on the eve of a game and find out there’s no deal and they’re with the same cable operator.”

September