When they decided more than a decade ago to launch a league-owned cable network, NFL executives were taking a gamble. It was a calculated, billionaire-backed gamble, but a gamble nonetheless.
Their assumption was that NFL fans’ appetite for football was so insatiable they would keep coming back for more — even during the six or so offseason months when there is no live football. The league was right. Fans can’t get enough. And NFL Network, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Monday, is thriving and growing in that football-mad environment.
“Can you sustain it in the offseason? That was really the question,” said Mark Quenzel, NFL Network senior VP of programming and production, who was with ESPN at the time. “But I also remember thinking: If anybody can pull it off, it’s probably the National Football League.”
The NFL is the most popular sports league in America, and it isn’t close. Still, there was a time when the NFL wasn’t the year-round topic of conversation it is today.
Rich Eisen, who has been the face and voice of NFL Network since its inception, remembers a brainstorming session during his final days at ESPN in spring 2003. Someone suggested an NFL story for “SportsCenter” at a time when a lot of other events were going on, including postseason pushes in the NBA and NHL, the start of baseball season and March Madness.
“They were laughed out of the room,” Eisen recalled. “Why in the world would we talk about the NFL? Now, I’ve lost track of the number of daily, live football shows that ESPN has on the air.”
NFL Network, Eisen believes, “has been integral in proving that football is an everyday conversation piece.” The proof lies in its exponential expansion.
Eisen is reclining in one of several leather chairs positioned in front of a garage door-sized bank of TV monitors at NFL Network’s studios in Culver City. He has just finished serving as host of NFL Network’s four-hour Sunday pregame show, “NFL GameDay Morning,” which follows a separate two-hour block of live programming, “NFL GameDay First.”
Eisen and dozens of NFL Network employees and personalities, including Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp, gather to watch the eight early-window games on the league’s Week 7 schedule. It’s like a sports bar without the alcohol.
Eisen takes it all in while monitoring his iPad, which sits on the right armrest of his chair; controlling the bank of TV screens with a tablet-sized remote control; and speaking to a reporter. He is asked how NFL Network has changed over the past 10 years.
“It’s like television as a technology. It’s gone from black-and-white to high-definition color to 3D,” Eisen said. “There’s no comparison between the two — with the exception of, the sensibility is the same. We haven’t changed from the first show to the current show. We take football seriously, but not ourselves.”
When NFL Network launched Nov. 4, 2003, the first and only in-house show it produced was the Eisen-hosted “NFL Total Access,” which aired for one hour Monday-Friday. NFL Network now produces more live content in a day than it did then in a week.
The network estimates it will air more than 3,000 hours of live NFL coverage in 2013. At the Super Bowl this past season, NFL Network aired 140 hours of programming — 128 more than the first Super Bowl it covered, in 2004.
It was there, in Houston, that Eisen realized the risk he had taken was a sound one. ESPN reached almost 100 million homes; NFL Network, at launch, only 11.5 million. But its guest list at Super Bowl XXXVIII was packed with A-listers, including George H.W. Bush, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Eisen called his wife after the first day and told her: “You know, we’re going to be fine.”
Today, NFL Network is available in more than 72 million homes. It’s unquestionably bigger. It’s also better.
Shortly after arriving at NFL Network, Eisen received a phone call from the league’s COO, who wanted to meet with him. They ended up playing golf together, and while Eisen was in a back-nine bunker, the COO, Roger Goodell, delivered this message:
“We hired you to do the job that you did at ESPN. If you ever get a phone call or an email from anyone in the league telling you what to say, or what you said is something you shouldn’t have said, you call me and I’ll fix it.”
The NFL recognized that credibility was crucial to its fledgling network’s success. In recent years, it has taken several steps to further enhance its journalistic credentials.
Recent editorial hires include Andrea Kremer, who was tasked with covering health issues, including concussions, without interference; and Michael Silver, who was critical of the league’s owners during the 2011 lockout (which NFL Network impressively covered from both sides). The head of the network’s newsroom — which also includes NFL.com under the umbrella of NFL Media — is David Eaton, a former bureau chief at ABC News.
“I don’t see the NFL Network being this slanted, tell-me-everything-I-want-to-hear type of network,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “You can’t be an independent voice, but you can be a credible voice.”
It’s impossible to predict what’s in store for NFL Network the next 10 years. Its president and CEO, Steve Bornstein, is stepping down next year, to be replaced by Brian Rolapp, who comes from more of a digital background. Network executives say they want to tell more in-depth stories and explore new ways to deliver content. The “Thursday Night Football” package, which features 13 regular-season games, could be expanded and split between NFL Network and another cable outlet.
Executive producer Eric Weinberger, who has been there from the start, summed up the state of NFL Network as it enters its second decade of existence.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done so far,” he said, “and very excited about where this is going to go.”
• Kudos to ESPN’s Colin Cowherd for talking about what many of us had to be thinking about during the World Series: the possibility that series MVP David Ortiz is using performance-enhancing drugs. Cowherd didn’t accuse Ortiz of being on PEDs. Rather, Cowherd noted Ortiz’s age (37), his history (a past positive test) and his statistically improbable resurgence. If you aren’t at least suspicious, Cowherd said, you’re being naive. He’s right.
• Joe Buck’s tribute to longtime broadcast partner Tim McCarver at the end of Fox’s telecast Wednesday night was classy and heartfelt. It had to have been hard for Buck to keep it together; he truly regards McCarver as a mentor and friend. And how ironic was it that McCarver’s last word was just one word, “ditto”?
• Turning from baseball to basketball, it’s so nice having Charles Barkley in our lives again on a regular basis. Only Chuck could make this joke work: “LeBron’s headband is so big, Spud Webb could use it as a shower curtain.”