NFL Network To Blitz Upfront: Signs Reebok, Sets April Event

Fresh off the addition of prime-time NFL games to its schedule, the NFL Network will join the upfront parade this spring, hosting a presentation for advertisers April 26 in New York.

The network hopes the event will raise its profile in the ad community. It plans to announce details regarding the eight games it will carry this fall--which start Thanksgiving night--and to introduce other new programming.

The network--which received rights to the games on Jan. 27 in a move by the NFL to strengthen its own property, in lieu of some $400 million in rights fees it could have obtained from another media company--has considerable work to do in developing a sales strategy and, more importantly, boosting distribution beyond the current 35 million homes. In the crosshairs is a deal for carriage on Time Warner Cable, the country's second-largest MSO with some 11 million homes, and full distribution in number-one Comcast's 21 million (the network is in less than half).

Meanwhile, NFL Network has signed Reebok as the presenting sponsor of its coverage of the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine. The Indianapolis combine is sort of an upfront for prospective NFL players, where teams get a chance to gauge their abilities through drills, tests, and interviews in advance of the April draft. As the draft itself has gone from a niche event popular with hard-core buffs to garnering mass appeal from fans who view it as a launching pad for their team's future success, the combine has also grown in popularity.



The "2006 NFL Scouting Combine on NFL Network Presented by Reebok" includes 26 hours of coverage from Feb. 23 to March 1. Reebok receives exposure via tune-in promos; opening and closing billboards; and branded integration on the network's flagship "NFL Total Access" show, including on-set logo placement, audio mentions, and title sponsorship of a feature segment. The deal also extends to the NFL Network's video-on-demand programming, where Reebok will sponsor player profiles available on VOD in the weeks surrounding the draft.

The Reebok deal marks the first time the network has sold a "presenting sponsorship" of its combine coverage. NFLN is looking to boost revenue by attaching "presenting sponsorships" to its tentpole events such as pre-Super Bowl week, the combine, the draft, training camps, and the Hall of Fame inductions. Coors Light made the first such deal when it became the presenting sponsor of the network's pre-Super Bowl coverage last month. (Both Reebok and Coors Light have other relationships with the NFL, with Reebok placing its logo on uniforms as the official outfitter, and Coors Light as the official beer sponsor.)

Formed in 2003, the NFL Network's success going forward hinges on reaching more homes than the DIY Network or the Military Channel. "That is the challenge," said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of national TV at MindShare.

Before the upfront, the network hopes to reach deals with Time Warner and Cablevision giving it access to their combined 14 million homes, while broadening existing arrangements with Comcast and Cox to give it millions more. The network is not yet rated.

Kris Magel, senior vice president-account director at Zenith Media, said live NFL games will help in negotiations with MSOs. "I don't think that's going to drive them to 70 million homes in a year," he said. "But it gives them leverage since cable operators want their platform to increase their local advertising base."

The network will try to drive sales by packaging its eight NFL games with other programming, mostly comprised of shows focusing on highlights, analysis, and historical footage. David Pattillo, national sales manager, heads the network's six-person sales team. The NFL could package official league sponsorships like the ones Reebok and Coors Light hold with ad time on the network. With games likely priced below other NFL carriers, advertisers with smaller budgets may be able to add NFL games to their media mix.

"It's a great way to provide an entry point for some advertisers who can't afford football, including ESPN," Magel said.

There's also the question of which games the NFL Network will carry this fall. Unlike NBC's new deal with the NFL--which gives it flexible scheduling in hopes of avoiding less-than-marquee matchups as teams fall out of the playoff race--the NFL Network will follow the old model which has left ABC's "Monday Night Football" with many a lackluster late-season game: Its eight games will be determined in April and set in stone.

The network does have the advantage that its five Thursday night and three Saturday night games will not face competition from other NFL games. And its first telecast--on Thanksgiving night--should be a popular draw, since football often plays a major role in holiday celebrations, and the NFL has never had a third game that day. Also, the bulk of its games come after the college regular season has ended and football fans are hungry for programming.

Of course, the NFL creates the schedule, and as owner of the network, could look out for itself. But such a move risks alienating the other four networks that carry its games and pay billions of dollars in rights fees.

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