Ann Kirschner, vice president of NFL Interactive, recalls feeling like “the lone voice in the wilderness” walking the halls of the league’s Park Avenue headquarters. “I’m still doing a lot of evangelizing” to league officials and team owners, she says. “But now the question is: ‘Are we doing enough?’ Not: ‘Are we doing too much?'”
It was in 1994, after successfully launching NFL Sunday Ticket–the league’s satellite TV broadcast package–that she turned her focus toward the Internet as the next uncharted broadcast medium for the league.
“I think a lot of them thought I was crazy,” says Kirschner, 47. “My job was to see into the future and I was telling them the wave was coming.”
For league officials, proof washed ashore this May in the form of a deal with ESPN Internet Ventures, a division of Disney’s Buena Vista Internet Group, to build and maintain the league’s Web site for the next two seasons. ESPN reportedly paid the league just under $10 million. Previously, IBM ponied up $1 million for exclusive sponsorship of the league’s other site, Superbowl.com.
It may not be the billions of dollars the networks shell out for TV broadcast rights for league games, but Kirschner believes, “I could see Internet-related broadcast rights brokered in five years” when the current TV pact expires. “If you asked me to look into my crystal ball, I’d say it’s highly likely that what’s on the Internet will be included in broadcasters’ rights, but not all of it.”
“I come out of the cable and satellite TV business. I’ve seen shifts like this before,” says the mother of three. In fact, Kirschner has seen a lot since she taught freshman English at Princeton University more than a decade ago. Despite having no technical expertise, she left the world of dead writers to explore emerging technologies, some of which came to market too soon. Among other forays, she became involved with the mid ’80s TV-delivered information service Teletext–a rudimentary predecessor to the Home Network–when she and two partners later purchased it from Westinghouse in 1985 and formed Prime 24, a company she quickly asserts she has no connection with today.
The primary business of Teletext never took off, but a secondary function–delivering broadcast signals for NBC, ABC and CBS to consumers with satellite dishes–did. “Nobody was ready for the electronic programming guide, which is where our hearts were,” recalls Kirschner.
Today, thanks to Kirschner, the league is heartened by the promise of the Internet. “League management is quite enlightened,” she adds.