No negotiation with the NFL and Roger Goodell is ever easy. They’ll milk the clock, lean on you, wait you out, and take you for all your worth. Distributors, television partners, sponsors, the players union, and countless others all know the deal. When you negotiate with the NFL, you’re signing up for a slugfest. That’s just how it goes.
But this month we may have seen the NFL bested a bit in terms of negotiating tactics. Or perhaps at worst, this latest round with Comcast may end up being a draw.
Let’s start with the facts portion of this article before jumping into some conjecture…
- On May 1st, Comcast the nation’s largest cable company, dropped NFL Network.
- Comcast CEO, Brian Roberts, and Roger Goodell got on the phone May 1st to handle negotiations directly.
- The carriage dispute was settled on May 2.
- Last week, Comcast-owned Peacock was given a juicy Bills vs. Chargers Week 16 matchup as their one exclusive regular season game.
- This past Monday came the shocking news that Peacock will air the first exclusively streamed NFL playoff game ever.
And now on to some theorizing…
Let’s go back to NFL Network going dark on Comcast on May 1st. The timing of this could not have been any better for Comcast and any worse for the NFL.
The draft had concluded, free agency was mostly quiet, and training camp was a few months away. Comcast had about a 90-day window in which the number of people calling to cancel their service because NFL Network was going to be extremely low and manageable.
S&P Global reports that the average household pays nearly $1.80 a month for NFL Network. Comcast has just north of 15 million subscribers with the majority of them having NFL Network. You do some back-of-the-napkin math here and even if Comcast brought NFL Network back closer to football season (let’s say August), just dumping it for a few months could have saved them $50-80 million. That’s great for Comcast and not great for the NFL – hence why Roger Goodell jumped to get involved. SBJ does a great job explaining how unique it was for Goodell and Roberts to directly speak about the carriage issue.
It’s highly unusual for either of these industry titans to roll up his sleeves on a simple cable carriage negotiation, so it’s significant that the two talked in the hours after NFL Network went dark on Comcast’s cable systems.
Comcast dropped NFL Network on Monday after the two sides were unable to reach a deal. The main disagreement was on price, sources said, though it is not known how much of an increase the NFL was seeking. NFL Network asked for several extensions to try and keep from going dark, but those proposed extensions were way too short to convince Comcast to play ball.
The fact that Goodell called Roberts demonstrates how seriously the NFL views this negotiation with the country’s largest cable operator. The league has been listening to offers for people to buy its media business, which is anchored by NFL Network, a channel, like most others, that has been hurt by cord-cutting.
Expect Comcast and the NFL to reach a deal eventually, even if it doesn’t come this week. Now that the NFL Draft is over, Comcast will not feel pressure to do a deal until late summer, just before the season starts. Remember, this deal also involved NFL RedZone, and Comcast will not want to head into the season without that channel.
Not long after Goodell’s call with Roberts, NFL Network was back. Comcast didn’t opt to let the channel go dark for the slow months of the year and bank millions in saved content costs. Most industry folks raised an eyebrow at how fast the issue resolved. Other than not pissing off the NFL, what did Comcast gain by reversing course so quickly here?
We're heading to California in Week 16!
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) May 12, 2023
In the last week, we’ve seen Peacock get a gem of a game as their lone regular-season exclusive with the Bills taking on the Chargers in Week 16. For comparison sakes, ESPN+ is getting the Jaguars playing the Falcons at 9:30 AM ET for their streaming exclusive, woof.
And then yesterday came the big news. Peacock was getting a playoff game.
What has largely gone unreported or unnoticed is that in the most recent round of NFL television extensions, the NFL has decided to hold one playoff game back which they will auction out every year. I mean why not? Frank, Carl, and Gerri clearly just can’t get enough of this.
But in terms of which streamer would actually get the first exclusive playoff game, it’s long believed that the first playoff exclusive would go to Amazon, the league’s Thursday Night Football partner. There were once reports that it would indeed get a playoff game if certain viewership goals were hit for TNF. John Ourand reported earlier in the week that indeed Amazon was circling the playoff game.
“The NFL shipped this game around to all of the usual suspects — current partners and new ones. At one point, I had heard that Amazon was close to getting the game for Prime before the NFL sold it to Peacock.”
In most ways, Amazon makes way more sense. Year one of Thursday Night Football went very well. Viewership, stream quality, and the broadcast were generally well received. Plus Amazon Prime is in way more households than Peacock, which would make the game more accessible for fans, especially considering many would have had two years of viewership history with TNF. For many fans, Peacock is going to be a totally new platform they’ll have to navigate.
Additionally, some feel like the $110 million price tag Comcast/Peacock is paying is actually more than a fair price. Given Amazon is paying $67 million per regular season game, the $110 million number (a 1.65x multiple) seems like not high enough of a premium given it’s a playoff game and one that will trigger a significant amount of sign-ups.
When you add it all up, it’s really hard to not think that Comcast and Roberts took the call from Goodell knowing Comcast had tremendous leverage and knowing they could lean on Goodell and cut a deal that would help bolster Peacock. Credit to Twitter user, Rick Jacobs who initially surfaced this incredibly plausible theory.
Conceivably, Roger Goodell made the call knowing with NFL Network dark on Comcast and losing millions of dollars a week, he had to play ball with the broadcast giant on another front to stop the bleeding.
Ultimately NFL Network is back on Comcast and Comcast now has a playoff game and an exclusive regular season game that isn’t ass. Sure, these things could have happened independently or been handled by underlings, but given how rare either top executive gets involved in negotiations, how fast the carriage issues were resolved, and the events of the past two weeks, it’s certainly hard not to think that Goodell and Roberts cut a deal and one which both sides feel really good about. Given how often the NFL bulldozes anyone they negotiate with, for Comcast and Roberts, this is a pretty significant and rare winning outcome.