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Football fans foot the bill as networks, NFL reach record-breaking deals

As the hours tick away to the start of another season of National Football League play tonight, it is hard to miss the unmistakable sound of a mighty broadcast marketing and media machine clicking into place.

Viewers of this morning’s Today show were greeted with the sight of anchors Matt Lauer and Al Roker standing in Lambeau Field at Green Bay, Wisc., cameras panning across rows of giddy fans as they voiced patronizing stories on the power and history of Packers fans.

NBC-owned outlets The Weather Channel, Spanish-language Telemundo and E! entertainment all are broadcasting from Wisconsin, where NBC just happens to be airing tonight’s opening game between the Packers and the New Orleans Saints. Even President Obama can’t stop the football-related furor, as his much-anticipated job-creation speech was shifted out of prime time to 7 p.m. to make way for the game’s 8:30 p.m. start; the network’s 7 p.m. pre-game special will air on four cable channels, Versus, Syfy, G4 and USA.

And this morning, sports media watchers awoke to news that ESPN sealed an eight-year deal with the NFL to keep Monday Night Football at the company until 2021. The cost, according to the New York Times: $15 billion, or $1.9 billion annually, a 73 percent spike from the previous deal.

Across the TV dial, the signs are obvious. Football is the backbone of a fading television industry and there is no one happier about a lockout-less fall than broadcasters and cable channels addicted to the volumes of young male viewers only sports can provide in big numbers.

“In some ways, I sense even a little more excitement this year, because so many of us were in doubt about this season,” said Sean McManus, CBS Sports president, in a conference call Wednesday about the NFL season’s start. “It’s hard to imagine a better season than last year.”

Indeed, at CBS like everywhere else in television, the numbers are impressive. According to McManus, last season was the highest-rated in 15 years for the network; their Steelers/Jets championship game in January was the most-watched in history, with nearly 55 million viewers.

Look at ratings figures from last TV season, and you will see that, among the most-watched 15 programs airing in 2010-11, eight were football broadcasts on NBC, CBS and Fox. They also happened to be the only shows in that group which drew markedly more male viewers, prized by advertisers because they watch television less and are harder to reach.

Forget about getting ready for some football. As the new NFL season kicks off today, you better get ready for some serious football-connected pandering by television outlets, along with increased cable fees aimed at passing along increasing rights fees directly to you.

For proof, look no further than ESPN’s new Monday Night Football deal, which tacks on 500 hours of new programming – read: extra advertising revenue and ratings potential – while locking in 136 games for the channel’s storied football TV franchise to 2021.

At a time when a Comcast-led NBC Universal is forging its own sports alliance from the bones of Versus, The Golf Channel and Comcast’s regional sports channels, the need to land Monday Night Football at the Worldwide Leader was even more important.

Under the new arrangement, Sunday NFL Countdown expands to three hours, NFL Live expands to one hour year-round and new shows such as NFL 32 and NFL Kickoff will soon debut. There are provisions for bringing games to 144 countries outside the U.S. and broadcasts in 3-D, online and other digital platforms.

For fans, it’s a double-edged sword. You’ll get more access to games, data and analysis than ever before, presented on more mainstream platforms; TV executives go where the valuable viewers are and, these days, that means football.

But these deals also mean costs for cable service will rise, as channels such as ESPN pass their increased costs along to providers, who then pass them along to customers. The same squeeze happens in a subtler way with broadcast channels, who have gotten into nasty fights in recent years with cable companies over their own retransmission fees while paying a combined $3.1 billion annually for rights to air NFL games.

This success also means the NFL doesn’t have to consider easing up on its blackout rules preventing local TV stations from airing home games that don’t sell out. In the Tampa Bay area, where I live, that policy blacked out every Buccaneers home game last season and threatens to do so again this year.

“The blackout rules by and large have been effective,” said CBS Sports executive producer and vice president of production Harold Bryant said Wednesday, noting the NFL has preferred a long-term view to short-term responses to teams struggling with long stretches of blackouts. “I don’t think the NFL has any intention of lifting it.”

That means we all should sit back and enjoy another exciting season of football action coming our way, thanks to the ability of millionaire players and billionaire team owners to realize what side of the golden goose their meal sits on.

But keep in mind the network of business deals and rights fees underlying every second of play you savor in the season to come.

Because, one way or another, you’ll end up paying a pretty price for every moment.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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