National Football League
Networks uneasy about life without NFL
National Football League

Networks uneasy about life without NFL

Published May. 17, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

For ESPN, the coming 2011-12 season is going to be the best ever — assuming, that is, the fiscal calendar isn’t depleted by a serious absence of major sports to televise.

This week, all the major broadcast networks, ESPN and the Turner channels are showcasing their wares to advertisers, part of an annual ritual known as the upfront market, where TV networks host elaborate events hoping to sell billions of dollars worth of advance commercial time. Traditionally, the season roughly coincides with the start of school, the NFL and the introduction of new car models, which was how the networks settled on September in the first place.

Yet a sizable cloud hangs over this year’s upfront festivities. Not only have NFL owners locked out players — triggering a court battle and dragging the networks into the dispute — but the NBA is lurching toward its own expected lockout, which most knowledgeable observers anticipate will result in the loss of games, if not the entire season.

This is bad news for every network with ties to either league but could be particularly rough on ESPN. Sure, the cable giant has no shortage of sports to cover — including college football and basketball — but any significant disruption to both leagues would result in airing more of the peripheral junk (Lacrosse! Billiards! Strongman competitions!) that turns up on ESPN2 in the dog days of summer.


The big question was how ESPN would handle its portion of the upfront show Tuesday morning. Would it tackle the uncertainty head-on, or go with the nothing-to-see-here, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach, and hope media buyers fall for its Jedi mind tricks?

ESPN chose a middle ground: Fleetingly acknowledging the “labor strife,” as college announcer Rece Davis delicately put it, while essentially saying that the cable titan is so big, with so many different sports in its arsenal, that even a disruption of the NFL — the great-granddaddy of all sports attractions — can’t harm it.

“They’re gonna play,” ESPN executive vice president John Skipper coyly told the assembled crowd in New York. “I don’t know when they’re gonna play, but at some point, they’re gonna play football.”

On Monday, NFL owners won an appeals court injunction sustaining their right to lock out players, a decision that promises to push the court action surrounding the dispute right up to the start of training camps. So that “when” comes with a huge question mark.

Skipper, however, had another message for the media buyers in the room: Live sports attract audiences like nothing else on TV, and ESPN is doing all it can to corner the market on them. All that was missing was an insane laugh, like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

“Live is what matters, and we want to aggregate the rights to as many live sports as possible,” he said, citing new deals with college conferences like the ACC and Pac-12.

To be fair, NBC and FOX weren’t particularly enthusiastic about discussing NFL contingency plans, either, with NBC optimistically saying “Sunday Night Football” would “most likely” be delayed no more than a few weeks. Unlike ESPN, though, they’re not exclusively in the sports business.

From a fan’s perspective, ESPN’s assessment sounded a little rosy, to say the least. Because the bottom line is that while ESPN has no shortage of sports to televise, expanded X Games coverage and heartwarming short films about female soccer players — two of the things that were announced Tuesday — serve as rather poor substitutes for the NFL and NBA.

Admittedly, ESPN is still in a strong position, especially with the power of live sports to hold viewers’ attention in the age of TiVo and zapping past commercials during entertainment shows. “Saturday Night Live’s” Seth Meyers, who hosts the ESPYs, joked Tuesday that all ESPN has to do is say, “Nike, we good. Gatorade, we good. ... It’s good to be ESPN.”

With the billions that ESPN rakes in annually, there’s no arguing about that. Just how good, though, depends — in a big way — on when they’re gonna play football. Twitter:blowryontv.


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