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March Madness 2013: A Blueprint for the NFL on TV?

Scott Halleran

As you probably know, this week is the kickoff for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. March Madness and the NFL might be the two most valuable sports properties on television. They used to function the same way on television. On the opening Thursday and Friday of March Madness, each timeslot would have three to four games played at any one time. CBS carried every game. You would get to see one game assigned to your region just like you do on an NFL Sunday while the other games were viewed in other regions. Like the NFL, DirecTV had a package you could buy to watch out of market tournament games. Unlike the NFL, you could also watch out of market games streamed online.

That changed in 2011. Facing a challenge from ESPN for television rights, CBS partnered with Turner Sports. Now you can watch every minute of March Madness on television. CBS gets featured games, but the games not on CBS are shown live on TBS, TNT, and TruTV. You can now watch any game you want.

I wonder whether the NFL would ever consider going to a similar model. In pro baseball, hockey, and basketball, the individual teams broker their own contracts about where most of their games are carried. The NFL negotiates its TV deal for the entire league. There's a Thursday night package on NFL Network, a Sunday night package on NBC, and a Monday night package on ESPN. Unless you are playing one of those games, your game is seen on either CBS or FOX on Sunday afternoon by only part of the country (aside from special games like on Thanksgiving).

If the NFL adopted the NCAA model, they could put the Jets on CBS in New York for a 1:00 game. Games you ordinarily would not be able to see in New York would be carried on cable channels, allowing you to watch any game you felt like. For example, if Turner Sports was involved, you could flip to Steelers-Patriots on TNT during commercials.

It would be a great thing for fans, but I'm not sure how enthusiastic the NFL would be about the idea. The league has some weird rules about TV. For example, when a local team is playing at home, no other game can be seen at that time on TV barring special circumstances. When the Giants are playing a home game on FOX, there is no game in New York on CBS at the same time. In theory, this protects attendance. People will go to a Giants game instead of watching the CBS game. (The NFL also blacks out home games that don't get sold out for the same reason.) It also protects FOX. FOX pays a lot to show the Giants in New York so another game would hurt ratings.

I also wonder how certain teams would react to this, especially small market ones. The biggest reason most people pick the local team to follow as a kid is that team is the only one on TV every week. It is the easiest team to follow. Would the Jaguars be happy if a more popular team like the Steelers was on every week in Jacksonville?

Going to the NCAA model makes all the sense in the world for the NFL. It would get the product out for more people to see it. It would make life easier on out of market fans. It would allow the league to get more money in television contracts by bringing in more partners. The league's owners have had such a backwards view of TV for a long time, though, that I wonder whether it will ever happen.