RedZone Scores TD With Fans

The NFL Network's 'crack' channel draws viewers by making an end-run around ads

Like a pulling guard smashing his way through summer blocking drills, the commercials just keep exploding off the line of scrimmage. Pop pop pop, hit and get hit—they are relentless in their metronomic intensity, unwavering and propulsive. State Farm’s Discount Double Check. Geico gecko. Tires gripping asphalt, timber stacked in a truck bed; Built Ford tough.

While it’s anathema to make this assertion in a magazine devoted to the business of advertising, a Sunday afternoon devoted to professional football can leave even the most ardent fan feeling like a tackling dummy. Geico alone last year spent $158.1 million on TV sports inventory, and the brand’s ubiquity in NFL broadcasts is such that its CGI spokeslizard should be awarded fantasy points.

Enter NFL RedZone, a frenetic seven-hour chef’s tour through the league’s Sunday schedule. Hosted by NFL Network’s Scott Hanson, RedZone whips around to every scoring opportunity within the 20-yard line, vaulting from a long end-around run that brings Pittsburgh down to Miami’s goal line to a blind-side hit that leads to a safety in Detroit. Restless and omnivorous, it’s football with all the fat cut out—no more huddles, no more endless deliberation on coach’s challenges, no more shots of lineman milling around with their hands on their hips—and it’s all gloriously commerical-free.

A sidecar bolted to the frame of the flagship NFL Network, there’s a small price to pay for the service. Having recently added NFL Network to its digital basic and sports pass tiers, Time Warner Cable is offering RedZone at a premium of $5.95 per month.

With as many as nine 1 p.m. ET games to toggle through, Hanson has his work cut out for him. “He takes pride in the fact that he doesn’t so much as get up to go to the bathroom,” said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. “There’s no letting up. We take a lot of pride in making sure we’re giving you exactly what you want, as it happens. There’s no editing involved; it’s all done live and on the fly.”

With the addition of the Time Warner subs, NFL Net now reaches north of 70 million households. And while the league does not disclose its subscription numbers, conservative estimates place the three-year-old RedZone in roughly 3.5 million homes.

As habit-forming as the RedZone experience may be (the fantasy football consensus is that it’s “NFL Crack”), the service poses little danger to the league’s broadcast model. “The ratings for the Sunday national games just keep going up,” Weinberger said. “RedZone is additive. The more options, the better the overall experience for the fan.”

Unit costs in the late CBS and Fox games now hover near $500,000 and, as one TV buyer said, “the league’s not going to do anything to cannibalize that.”