The National Football League has signed record-setting television rights deals with Fox, NBC and CBS that will see the broadcast networks pay a total of nearly $28 billion in fees over nine years.
That breaks down to an average of $3.1 billion a year, representing a 63% increase over the $1.9 billion paid annually by CBS, NBC and Fox for NFL football under their current contracts. The new accords, which take effect after the 2013 season and run through 2022, come just two months after the NFL signed an eight-year pact with Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN that boosted the cable sports network's average annual rights fee to $1.9 billion from $1.1 billion.
The dramatic rise of television sports rights fees underscores the value of so-called big event programming in a fragmented media landscape. Although ratings for the broadcast networks continue to decline as viewers flock to cable and the Internet for entertainment, sports programs still deliver big audiences. So far this season, NFL games on NBC, CBS and Fox are all averaging roughly 20 million viewers — far more than the typical situation comedy or drama.
"No other franchise delivers ratings the way an NFL game does," said CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.
With its deals with the broadcast networks and ESPN and the $1 billion a year DirecTV shells out for its Sunday Ticket package, allowing subscribers to watch any game they choose, the NFL will soon be getting about $6 billion a year in TV rights fees.
Although the NFL's current arrangements with broadcast networks had more than two years left to run, the league was eager to lock in new long-term contracts in the wake of the 10-year labor agreement it struck with players last summer.
Keeping the bulk of regular season and post-season football, including the Super Bowl, on broadcast TV for almost a decade will also buy the NFL some goodwill with fans and lawmakers who fret about major sports events migrating to pay-television.
"These agreements underscore the NFL's unique commitment to broadcast television that no other sport has," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
However, that doesn't mean consumers won't end up footing a large chunk of the bill for the networks. The broadcast networks charge fees from the cable and satellite operators who carry their programming, and those costs will likely increase in the years ahead because of the NFL.
"There is no question bills will go up," said Adam Chase, a lawyer at the Washington firm Dow Lohnes who specializes in sports media.
Chase predicted there will be a trickledown effect from network to cable and satellite operators to consumers. "They are going to look to pass those costs on," he said.
News Corp.'s Fox pays the biggest bill for the NFL, shelling out an average of $725 million a year for its rights to the National Football Conference. That will jump to an average of $1.1 billion per season under the new arrangement. Fox pays the most because the National Football Conference has several teams in large markets including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington.
CBS Corp. will pay an average of a little more than $1 billion for rights to the American Football Conference, which includes several teams in smaller markets such as the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Comcast Corp.'s NBC, which carries a prime-time package of Sunday night games, will pay an average of about $950 million per season over the course of its new deal with the league, up from about $650 million a year. NBC, which counts on the NFL to boost its sagging prime-time ratings, received some enhancements to its current agreement, including a Thanksgiving night game that will start next season and access to NFL footage that it can use for a pre-game show it is launching on its NBC Sports Network cable channel.
All three networks have rights to stream NFL games over the Internet. However, only consumers who already subscribe to a pay-TV provider such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable can access NFL games online.