It is January at the NFL Network. The playoffs are here, hours are long, and sleep is hard to come by. When my girlfriend asks me how I can stand getting up at four in morning and taking a dark, caffeine-filled drive down the 91 Freeway into the office every day, all I can do is smile. You can’t explain it, not to someone who doesn’t get to experience it. This is crunch time. Every day is the fourth quarter, and the game never ends. Some people would go insane within a few weeks by sheer overexposure to football. Hell, if I hear one more person shout "OMAHA!" across the news room, I might go insane.
What makes it all worth it, though, is not what happens in the Monday to Friday grind. Just like football fans everywhere, our crown jewel is Sunday. No matter what random crisis pops up throughout the work week, there’s something about game day at the NFL Network that seems to make all of your problems disappear.
This, my friends, is Heaven. Every single week a larger and larger crowd from every building on the NFL Network campus comes to the Mecca of football watching experiences. Screams of "Ooh!" and "Aah!" can be heard from all over the room as people watch their favorite teams bust off big plays. Rich Eisen is usually lovingly shouting obscenities at Geno Smith in the way that only a die hard, Brooklyn born Jets fan like himself could. Chris Rose, in typical self-deprecating Browns fan fashion, is contemplating new ways for Brandon Weeden to make the state of Ohio miserable. After every Steelers touchdown, Michael Silver (and a chorus of others) will playfully throw a "Suck it, Rap Sheet!" across the room to Ian Rapoport.
I am often sandwiched between a couple Thursday Night Football producers taking notes on story lines and Steve Mariucci, who is likely being asked "Do you go for two here, coach?" for the fifth time that day. Occasionally Dez Bryant will do something, and by something, I mean literally anything at all, and a few seconds later Michael Irvin will bust into the room extolling the virtues of his favorite ‘88 Club’ member. Throw in a couple more Hall of Famers recalling war stories in the back row and a few dozen people enjoying free Papa John's (Thanks, Peyton), and you have yourself the greatest football party on earth every single week. Nothing on television, on the internet, or in a sports bar has ever replicated that experience – until two weeks ago.
As many of you have already heard, ESPN went absolutely balls out in their coverage of the final BCS National Championship game. The "Megacast", as they dubbed it, utilized their full arsenal of networks and services to provide the game in every possible iteration. Did you want the normal broadcast on ESPN? You got it. The more pop culture oriented…thing…on ESPN 2? You had that too. Want a game with no announcers? How about just a spider cam? How about the game with local radio commentators for each team? Check, check, and check. The best thing to come out of the Megacast, however, was on ESPN News with the "BCS Film Room" broadcast.
The Film Room was a relatively simple concept; put a bunch of very smart "football people" in a room, take off the watered down color commentary leash, and let them talk football for four hours while watching the game. It was raw, unscripted, educational, and extraordinarily captivating. While watching this show, I felt like I was back at the NFL Network on Sundays. I heard football people talking football. Game plans, techniques, "coachisms", jokes, the whole shebang. I felt like a fly on the wall in the meeting of one of the best brain trusts my favorite sport has to offer, and it was awesome.
I thought to myself that night that America may have just legitimately witnessed the next evolution of sports television, but how feasible would such a broadcast be for ESPN, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the NFL Network for professional football games? The very next day I talked to one of our producers at the NFLN to answer that very question.
"Well, for starters they can do it because they have so many networks and a much bigger staff than everyone else. ESPN alone employs more people than the entire NFL. We’ve only got one channel to work with, and only one crew. I also guarantee that they didn’t spend less than eight million on that megacast. A single Thursday Night Football production costs one million. They spent several times that and have the necessary staff to pull it off. We would have to probably freelance it all out, whereas they do not. "
I then asked if ESPN made back enough in advertising to cover the enormous costs of the Megacast.
"No way. Live sports never make money, but their job is not to make money. Sports is one of the few shows that you have a large captive live audience. Their sole purpose is to promote the other, cheaper-to-produce shows on the network to help their ratings and make back all your money on those productions.
'Friends' never made a dime after the cast renegotiated their contracts, but it was so popular that its value of being a promotional tool for the cheaper shows made it worth every penny. 'How I Met Your Mother', 'Modern Family', and 'Family Guy' work the same way, and so do other sports. That’s why Thursday Night Football is so valuable to us, because it helps promote 'A Football Life', 'Total Access', 'NFL AM', and everything else that we put on air. We wouldn't survive without it."
Though my dreams of a similar "Film Room" style broadcast on the NFL Network were shot, I would not be surprised if NBC and FOX are currently jumping out of their chairs in their respective offices. Both media conglomerates have recently launched sports networks that are struggling to gain a foothold against the ESPN giant, and both of them have the capital to dump an extra million dollars into tertiary football programming on Sundays. Even more importantly, both of them need a reason for people to tune into Fox Sports 1 and the NBC Sports Network en masse. Has ESPN just handed their rivals the blueprint to save themselves from early extinction? I would wager that they have.
Next season, do not be surprised if you see former coaches breaking down All-22 tape in real time during Sunday Night Football on the NBC Sports Network, or former players dissecting the techniques used in the trenches during games on FOX Sports 1. There is a growing audience among football fans that want to be the fly on the wall, that want to feel like they are sitting in a room watching a game with a bunch of Hall of Famers while eating Papa John's, that want to learn about the sport they love rather than hearing the same old color commentary clichés.
NBC and FOX have a chance to fill this void, and it might be just what they need to claim their share of the ratings pot. Even the NFL itself can still benefit from this evolution by offering these alternative feeds in a super duper, double dog deluxe package of NFL Game Rewind. This is a win for everyone, and proof that ESPN can still be incredible innovators when they really want to.