Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Business Review

Rupert Murdoch, the NFL, and the Negotiation That Remade TV

| Apr. 10, 2019

Barely a quarter century ago, in December 1993, a remarkable negotiation tectonically rocked the world of American football, with aftershocks that directly shaped today’s media landscape.

This was the business deal that won Fox prime rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games. It vaulted the fledgling Fox network, then far behind the Big Three — CBS, NBC, and ABC — to the hugely influential role it now plays in media and entertainment. In the words of a jubilant Rupert Murdoch, immediately after winning the NFL deal: “Like no other sport will do, the NFL will make us into a real network. In the future there will be 400 or 500 channels on cable, and ratings will be fragmented. But football on Sunday will have the same ratings, regardless of the number of channels. Football will not fragment.” (Indeed, a major New York Times investigative series suggests just how accurate Murdoch was in this prediction.)

I have studied, advised, and worked with many of the world’s best negotiators. Yet I had never examined any of Murdoch’s negotiations in detail — until I read an excellent recent article about the NFL rights deal on The Ringer: “The Great NFL Heist: How Fox Paid for and Changed Football Forever,” by Bryan Curtis. (I rely heavily to this lengthy piece for the negotiation story below and for many of the quotes below from central figures in the negotiation. Moreover, the author graciously added some key points in an email exchange.)

CBS had carried these games since 1956, sported a legendary team in the broadcast booth, and enjoyed an excellent relationship with the NFL. To Murdoch and his largely Australian team, displacing this popular U.S. incumbent posed a daunting challenge. A further barrier: In 1993 many TV markets didn’t even carry Fox, which broadcast mainly on the weaker UHF bands (versus the Big Three, which primarily used VHF).

The simplistic explanation for Murdoch’s unlikely success is that Fox just wrote a bigger check than CBS when the rights came up for renewal. But Murdoch’s high bid was only part of a much fuller strategy that holds powerful lessons for negotiators, especially underdogs, in businesses well beyond sports and media.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sebenius, James.“Rupert Murdoch, the NFL, and the Negotiation That Remade TV.” Harvard Business Review, April 10, 2019.

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