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Unprecedented NFL broadcast contract produces unintended consequences

Even for a sport known by its outsize excess, the new TV deals signed this week by the National Football League set a new standard.

A fee hike of 50 percent across three networks. A nine-year commitment. A total $3 billion in fees ($6 billion if you factor in ESPN and DirecTV). Each year.

The numbers, even for a sport used to dominating America’s attention and pocketbooks, must have sent a few team owners into heart palpitations.

But it is easy to see why the big networks are opening their pocketbooks. Earlier this year, at a time when network TV viewership seems to shrink annually, the Super Bowl set a new all-time record for any television broadcast – the one place left where we all seem to congregate and recreate the small-screen-as-national-hearth ideal that once was commonplace.

As we all fragment into our own personalized networks of video-sharing sites, iPad apps and cable TV channels, that hearth becomes a more potent economic force than ever. Just ask the executives at NBC, where its lackluster new shows and fading veteran series have left Sunday Night Football telecasts as one of its very few bright spots on a bleak programming lineup.

But with this success comes unexpected impact. And there is no way TV outlets can pony up a record $6 billion for football without a few unintended consequences for those of us who merely sit and watch the games.

1) Higher cable and satellite TV fees – Expect every TV outlet involved in these deals to eventually pass along the higher fees to viewers. And it won’t just be the cable and satellite companies.

TV networks now charge cable systems to pass along their signals – reasoning that one big enticement pushing customers to cable is accessing DTV-clear broadcasts of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. Every year, we have one cable system or another threatening to drop a suite of channels connected to a network broadcaster, mostly because these retransmission fees keep rising (believe it or don’t, the networks once paid cable systems to broadcast their shows).

Expect those fights to escalate, as networks pass more of that NFL bite along to cable systems, who will fight and claw and threaten and eventually go along, passing the charges along further to the last person on the chain: the cable and satellite subscriber.

2) Even less wiggle room on blackout policies – Here in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, viewers have been especially victimized by the NFL’s stringent policies preventing local TV stations from telecasting home games which are not sold out. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been disappointing fans week after week; last year, every home game was blacked out to viewers, this year, just two of seven home games have been telecast.

I have long argued that such rules make little sense in Florida, where the double whammy of a disappointing team and a persistent economic slump have made it hard for fans to spend big bucks on tickets to games they know the home team stands a good chance of losing (they just got blown out by Jacksonville, after all!).

But with the weight of that $6 billion in fees filling the NFL’s pockets, expect no mercy on the blackout front. The owners and athletes already have their TV money, so why shouldn’t they safeguard the special status of their product by ensuring no one sees it for free until every ticket in the house is bought by someone (or some company)?

3) More pressure to gloss over problems in sports coverage — As my fellow columnist Michael Bradley has already pointed out, any network which shells out close to $1 billion annually for football games is not going to want its journalistic arms breaking stories detracting from the success of the league or the broadcasts. Which means ESPN, the new Comcast-developed NBC Sports Network, CBS and Fox will have a mighty incentive to avoid all but the most obvious and inescapable negative stories.

When I first began writing columns in this space two years ago, my first real piece was about NBC’s inaugural broadcast from the Dallas Cowboy’s $1.2-billion stadium in Arlington, Texas. It was a grand space, almost as long as the Empire State building is high, filled with a record-size crowd for an NFL game.

But the stadium also cost twice the original estimates; locals reportedly paid more than $933 million — a total that includes interest on bonds the city took out to fund its contributions. Local taxes went up, while the stadium charged $40 for parking and $60 for a 20-inch pizza, according to local news reports.

And to make the NFL regular-season attendance record that night, they sold 30,000 fans $29, standing-room-only tickets.

Little of this showed up in NBC’s coverage, which was mostly about backslapping Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and spreading reports to other network properties such as the Today show and Access Hollywood.

You can make the argument that such talk might not belong in actual game coverage. But when $1 billion is on the line, you can’t be surprised if people outside the sports entertainment department get roped into playing along.

4) Increasing commercialization of the sport – Besides hiking fees to cable outlets, the other way broadcasters will earn back the fees they’re paying is by exploiting the games themselves for as much as they can.

That means loads of ancillary shows packed with as much advertising as possible (ESPN’s new deal for Monday Night Football, extending the show to 2021, included 500 additional hours of programming). That means tie-in deals for whatever products can be wrapped around the action on the field, before and after. That also means higher fees for the commercials themselves to companies such as McDonald’s, Ford and Anheuser-Busch (guess who eventually pays for that, too, in higher prices for Happy Meals and Explorers?).

Cool as it is to see a sport succeed as the heartbeat of American culture, it is sad and a bit worrisome to see the commercial exploitation that follows.

Because, stood next to the billions in fees and revenues on the table, the fans’ love for the game seems like a small thing, indeed.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduatYe 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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