Ten years ago this week, NFL Network came into existence. Even with an initial $100 million investment from the league's 32 owners, the 24-hour NFL cable channel didn't change the pro football media landscape overnight. However, its impact has become pronounced and significant as the last decade has worn on. Here's a look back at some of the key developments.
Nov. 4, 2003: The Launch, NFL Films and Total Access
Initially, NFL Network was valued most for its ability to air a whole new lot of NFL Films content. Ed and Steve Sabol had created such a remarkable operation, and this gave them a chance to expand the content they created as well as the viewer base for that content. Programs like Sound FX, NFL Films Presents and NFL's Greatest Games dominated the schedule in the early years.
A niche audience of football lovers (it was initially available to only 11.5 million viewers) quickly realized that NFL Total Access, which was and still is the network's "show of record," was a must-watch. Rich Eisen was the star, and Adam Schefter quickly became a well-respected insider. Eisen is no longer doing Total Access and Schefter has moved on to ESPN, but the nightly program continues to be a gold mine for NFL information and analysis.
February, 2004: The Scouting Combine on TV?
The three-month-old network was in Indianapolis in order to provide semi-live coverage of the Combine, which until then had been strictly a behind-the-scenes affair. Nine years later, their coverage of the 2013 Combine drew over 7 million viewers.
Apr. 29, 2006: They take over the draft
For the first time, NFL Network offered football fans an alternative to Chris Berman on draft day. With Mike Mayock in tow, their coverage of the draft has gotten better and better each year since.
Nov. 23, 2006: The birth of Thursday Night Football
Chiefs 19, Broncos 10 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Thanksgiving night, 2006. The first-ever game produced, directed and televised by NFLN.
Remember all of the controversy at the time? The channel was still quite obscure for mainstream sports fans. NFLN had 41 million subscribers and it wasn't available to Time Warner Cable, Cablevision or Charter Communications subscribers. By continuing to broadcast live games, eventually expanding the Thursday Night package from eight to 13 in 2012, NFLN and its president, Steve Bornstein, eventually strong-armed cable providers into biting the bullet and paying their high rates.
Those early games also took a lot of heat from a production standpoint. Cris Collinsworth was a good get, especially based on where he is now, but
Kermit the Frog Bryant Gumbel was terrible. Remember when he referred to Tony Romo as "Rick Romo"? His successor, Bob Papa, (along with the "dream" analyst pairing of Joe Theismann and Matt Millen) didn't fare much better, nor has Brad Nessler. But at least they have a steady analyst in Mayock.
Sept. 13, 2009: The launch of the NFL RedZone Channel
Hard to believe this is the fifth season since Scott Hanson started hosting NFL RedZone on a dedicated channel each Sunday. The "whip-around"-style channel, which only airs on 17 regular-season Sundays every year, has been an overwhelming success. It's seven hours of commercial-free coverage, jumping from game to game based on the circumstances. In other words, a fantasy football dream come true.
We don't have any hard numbers on RedZone's viewership base, but it's been popular enough that Forbes wondered earlier this year whether the channel was biting into network ratings.
March-July, 2011: Dominance during the lockout
The network has at times been criticized for being a PR arm for the league. I've never agreed with those accusations, simply because guys like Eisen, Schefter, Jason La Canfora et al have done a tremendous job at being critical when necessary. Sure, analysts like Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp are completely useless and add nothing to the product, but NFLN has always been pretty good at avoiding looking like a cheerleader.
They really gained points in the world of sports journalism with their coverage of the 2011 lockout. Reporter Albert Breer was a media star that offseason, breaking news and analyzing the issues like nobody else. Stacy Dales, Alex Flanagan, Kara Henderson, Michelle Beisner, Lindsay Rhodes, La Canfora, Scott Hanson and Randy Moss made up quite the team then, and most have excelled since.
Sept. 15, 2011: A Football Life debuts
Many of us have seen and enjoyed the annual "America's Game" documentaries, but NFL Films essentially spun off of that exact brand and style in the fall of 2011 with the debut of A Football Life. The documentary series has produced some gems on legends such as Bill Belichick, Al Davis and Ray Lewis. The Belichick documentary was a ratings bonanza, and the Emmy-nominated series has continued to earn NFLN credit and prestige ever since.
Sept. 21, 2012: NFLN finally shake hands with Time Warner
NFL Network came dangerously close to reaching its 10th birthday while still being locked in fierce distribution battles with major carriers. But an expanded regular-season schedule and growing broad numbers forced big movement in that area. A nine-year battle with Time Warner ended when the two parties finally struck an agreement early in the 2012 campaign. That was crucial because it gained NFLN upwards of 1 million new potential viewers in New York alone.
That deal came only a month after they were able to reach an accord with Cablevision, and one year after they returned to Charter Communications after a six-year absence. NFL Network is now available in more than 70 million homes via all of the major providers. With ESPN under the 100 million mark and bleeding subscribers, the gap between the two draws closer every year.
The shift has gone away from untimely but compelling and well-produced NFL Films content — although we still get plenty of that in their top-10 programs, through NFL Replay and with A Football Life and America's Game — and more toward live programming. I get that, because the people crave it.
That's why they air six hours worth of mere pregame content each Sunday and several hours of prime-time news content on weeknights, plus NFL AM Monday to Friday. They devoted 12 hours of live coverage to their first Super Bowl in 2004, and 140 hours to the most recent Super Bowl in New Orleans. The volume of the talking heads sometimes causes it to look and feel a lot like ESPN and Fox Sports 1, but the product never seems watered down from the perspective of the hardcore football fan.
That, ultimately, might be the key selling point for NFL Network. In fact, it's literally in their current slogan.
"When all you want is football."