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No NFL means big holes to fill for networks

March 14, 2011 |  4:34 pm


It is a long way from a lockout in March to no games in September, but the networks that carry NFL football might want to start making alternate plans just to be safe.

Last week, talks between the players and owners ended without a new deal on how the two sides should share the almost $10 billion in revenue the league gets, primarily from television deals. The other dividing point is whether the season should be extended from 16 regular-season games to 18 games.

The last time there was an impasse between players and the NFL that led to a work stoppage, the league played three games with replacement players. That was in 1987. A repeat of that, though, seems unlikely.

NBC and ESPN have the most to lose if the season is either delayed or scrapped. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is its highest-rated programming and serves as a platform for the network to promote the rest of its schedule. Given NBC's ratings this season, it may not seem as if it is working, but without it the network would really struggle to hype itself on its own air.

Disney's ESPN coverage of the NFL gave it huge ratings last year and makes the cable channel's $4 per-subscriber, per-month fee a little easier for its distribution partners to swallow.

Neither of the networks have announced plans for life without football. ESPN has said it has alternate plans in place but won't disclose anything about their strategy. NBC will probably look to movies or reality shows to fill the football void.

CBS and Fox have it easier since they carry games in the afternoon as opposed to prime time. Fox, which owns Fuel, an extreme-sports cable network, may try to use some of its programming to substitute for football. CBS might sell the time to a distributor of less high-profile sports programming. In other words, don't be too shocked if you find yourself watching bull riding.

Although the networks have tried to minimize the pain they will feel if football goes away, make no mistake -- they will be hurting. Whatever programming is substituted for football will get much smaller ratings and that means advertisers will pay less for commercials. As per their deals, the networks are supposed to continue to pay for football even if there are no games although the league will make good on that down the road. There has been a court ruling calling into question the deal so the networks may ultimately be off the hook on paying for games they won't get.

One thing is for sure, neither CBS nor Fox plan on giving that time back to their affiliates to program while the NFL owners and players try to resolve their differences.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Green Bay and Pittsburgh in last month's Super Bowl. Credit: Rob Carr / Getty Images.

For the record: This post was clarified to note that the NFL will cover the networks on any rights fees paid for games that don't get played.