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Frustrated NFL Fans Hit Pay Dirt

DirecTV set for the ninth season of its out-of-market Sunday Ticket package. Four channels added as technological advances are planned.

September 03, 2003|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The complaints, via e-mail and voicemail, always begin the first week and continue throughout the NFL season. Some readers are upset CBS shows so many Raider games in Los Angeles; others are upset the Raiders aren't shown every week.

Some don't want so many Cowboy games on Fox, others want more. There aren't enough Eagle games, or Giant games. There are too many Charger games.

If you're one of those fans who is never happy about what games CBS and Fox force upon you, there is a solution.

It's called NFL Sunday Ticket.

The downside is, it costs money -- from $179 to $239, depending on whether one is a new DirecTV customer or Sunday Ticket subscriber. And if you don't have DirecTV, you're out of luck, at least through the 2005 season.

The out-of-market pay package, which has been a big hit with subscribers, has been called the greatest thing to hit sports television since instant replay.

The package is entering its ninth season with a number of technological advances.

In addition to the 14 channels dedicated to the package, there will be four channels, 702-705, with "enhanced" telecasts.

These telecasts will include up-to-date statistical information from around the league and "red zone" alerts. The alerts let viewers know when teams in other games are in the red zone -- inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Another new feature, available to DirecTV customers who have TiVo or another digital video recorder (DVR), is a highlights-on-demand package. Game highlights, narrated and edited down to about two minutes a game, will be automatically delivered to a customer's DVR, ready to be viewed anytime from Monday morning on.

Something else new is that one CBS game a week will be offered in high definition to DirecTV subscribers who have a high definition system. In addition, two Fox telecasts will be offered in its special wide-screen enhanced digital format.

There is also an Internet aspect called GameTracker. Subscribers who sign on to DirecTV.com will get alerts when games heat up, and they can chat with friends or play trivia.

DirecTV worked with the NFL on these enhancements after agreeing to pay $2 billion over five years for exclusive rights through the 2005 season and satellite exclusive rights through 2007.

NFL fans unfamiliar with Sunday Ticket probably think it's too good to be true. The Sunday day games are available on successive DirecTV channels 706-719. Because games played Sunday night and Monday night can be seen on ESPN and ABC, Sunday Ticket subscribers have access to every game.

Games in local markets are blacked out on Sunday Ticket, but because Los Angeles does not have an NFL team, that does not apply here.

The cost of Sunday Ticket is still reasonable. The $239 price is for new DirecTV customers, but that also includes a promotional offer of four months of premium programming, valued at $350.

For those who already have DirecTV, a new subscription to Sunday Ticket costs $209. A renewal is $179.

Later in the season, for the first time, there will be a "pay-per-day" offer for $39.

The value of Sunday Ticket is one of the reasons Rupert Murdoch wants to own DirecTV. A $6.6-billion deal, currently awaiting government approval, would give Murdoch's News Corp. controlling interest in DirecTV, which is owned by Hughes Electronics.

DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci said everything is proceeding on schedule, and the deal is expected to be approved by the FCC and the Justice Department by the end of the year.

Because of the pending sale, News Corp. executives declined to comment for this story. But when an agreement was reached in April, Murdoch pledged to keep costs to customers in line.

Sunday Ticket is generally regarded as a bargain now.

"To me, it's priceless," said Mike Pederson, 33, a chef and San Francisco 49er fan from Inglewood who has been a subscriber for three years. "It's the reason I have DirecTV. I love all the sports packages, but Sunday Ticket is by far the best because you get every game."

Sunday Ticket is one of a number of out-of-market sports pay packages. Others include NBA League Pass, NHL Center Ice and Major League Baseball's Extra Innings. ESPN offers out-of-market pay packages for college football and basketball.

All of those packages also are available on digital cable. But they pale in comparison to NFL Sunday Ticket. That's not only because of the popularity of the NFL but also because there is already a saturation of the other sports on television. For example, an NBA fan gets a steady diet of games throughout the week without NBA League Pass.

NFL Sunday Ticket is one day a week, and it allows NFL fans to channel surf through every Sunday day game instead of being limited to the three games provided by CBS and Fox.

Might Sunday Ticket someday supplant the traditional network coverage of the NFL that has been around since 1960?

Steve Bornstein, the NFL's executive vice president in charge of new media who served as the league's main negotiator in the latest Sunday Ticket deal, says no.

"All games on Sunday Ticket?" he said. "That's not in the realm of possibility."

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