That may be an issue facing Goodell, Selig and others down the road depending on just how large the News of the World and other Murdoch properties in the UK, US and Australia scandal become. Murdoch has shut down the paper and has seen one of his closest associates arrested. That is not good on the resume for TV station license renewals.
Before the NFL, Murdoch's FOX network was a weak collection of UHF stations with the exception of a few cities like New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. Before the NFL, FOX had a few shows that drew some attention, the It's Gary Shandling's Show, the Tracy Ullman Show and Married With Children. Out of the Ullman show came The Simpsons, Shandling's show originally ran on Showtime and then went to FOX. Ullman's show was canceled in 1990. FOX could not establish a late night talk show, the Joan Rivers experiment was a disaster and a 1993 Chevy Chase late night show as a bomb. Not much worked for Murdoch.
Neither Al Bundy nor Bart Simpson, as popular as the characters would become, could bolster FOX. Murdoch's team was buying TV stations and became the biggest owner of over-the-air stations in the United States but by 1993, it was still the fourth network in a three horse race for ratings behind CBS, NBC and ABC.
The NFL changed all of that. Actually, it was Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys that put Murdoch on the map as Jones and Murdoch negotiated the TV deal that would change everything. The NFL had been prospering from TV rights fees since the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act which allowed the league commissioner, who is also the league's chief negotiator and lobbyist in all things NFL, to bundle the 14 member franchises into one entity in order to negotiate a TV deal. Three decades later, the NFL was a 30 franchise entity with four separate and distinct elements. CBS had the National Football Conference contests and paid slightly more money for the NFC than NBC did for American Football Conference games because the NFC had more major markets. ABC had Monday Night Football and ESPN and Turner Sports split a Sunday night package.
The NFL was being paid $3.6 million over a four year period between 1990 and 1993.
Murdoch's fourth place network was desperate for a game changer and the NFL provided him with an opening. The NFL and Jones were knocked over by Murdoch's bid for the NFC games. Murdoch was willing to fork over $1.58 billion over four years to get the NFC package along with the Super Bowl. Murdoch had a syndication arm but no news division, no sports division, none of the apparatus that CBS, ABC and NBC had. Murdoch knew that the NFL deals with an old philosophy, cash on the barrel head gets serious consideration and because he blew CBS out of the water with his bid, the NFL and Jones knew they would be getting a new partner with a patchwork of big city VHF and small area UHF stations and both sides would have to make it work.
In December 1993, The NFL took the money. In retrospect, it was the right decision but at the time it looked like just a money grab.
In early 1994, Murdoch started to prepare for the 1994 season by quickly established a sports department by giving John Madden an enormous contact and hiring his sidekick Pat Summerall. Murdoch also took Madden's CBS support team and made John feel right at home. Madden would become the face of FOX sports and with the NFL in tow, Murdoch was able to steal VHF stations in Detroit and Milwaukee away from CBS. Murdoch had one of TV's crown jewels, the NFL, and FOX would now be in a position to become a serious player in American TV.
It can be suggested that the success of the NFL and Madden on FOX led to Murdoch to start the FOX News Channel. The over-the-air network, still technically a syndication arm, started producing hits like the X-Files along with Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, In Living Color to go along with The Simpsons and Married With Children. Murdoch didn't have blockbuster ratings but the network was doing okay business and he already had a satellite news network in Europe, Murdoch turned to creating a United States cable TV news channel.
There are no what if questions. The NFL changed the fortunes of both Murdoch and Lawrence Tisch's CBS. In 1993, CBS completed the TV hat trick; it won daytime, prime time and late night ratings. David Letterman had just moved over to the network and things were looking good. But Tisch's CBS did not invest in cable TV, lost the NFL and Madden, football's top star both on and off the field, lost affiliates and would start a downward spiral. Murdoch's FOX Sports added the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball soon after the NFL deal. Eventually Murdoch would gain NASCAR and the Bowl Championship Series. On the cable TV side, Murdoch's regional sports cable networks are still strong despite being challenged by upstarts in the past few years. FOX either owns or has agreements with 24 regionals. There is also a partnership with The Big Ten Network and another with the Pac12 conference.
Murdoch's Fox Soccer Channel has the UEFA Champions League, Premier League, and Serie A among other competitions. Fox Soccer Plus has soccer and rugby programming from around the world. Murdoch's Speed Channel provides NASCAR and F-1 coverage,
Murdoch's Fuel TV presents action sports such as skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, BMX and FMX.Murdoch's Fox Deportes provides Spanish-language coverage of UEFA Champions League, Premiere League, and Serie A as well as Beach Soccer and the F.A. Cup. It also presents the Spanish-language Major League Baseball Game of the Week, the All Star Game, and the World Series, as well as division and league playoffs. Fox Deportes probably would not play well with FOX News Channel viewers but Murdoch doesn't really have an ideology except identifying an audience to exploit to make money. FOX Deportes is aimed at Spanish speakers in the United States, some illegal aliens more than likely, not at FOX News Channel watchers.
Rupert Murdoch built over-the-air viable network thanks to throwing money at the NFL, he had built a strong regional sports cable network, he had his news channel and became an American citizen because non American citizens could not own TV networks. Murdoch, the Australian, should not have owned FOX but American President Bill Clinton's Federal Communication Commission in 1995 allowed Murdoch to run FOX because it was "in the best interest of the public."
Murdoch has invested billions in American sports. So far the leagues and teams have said nothing about the events in London. FOX Sports has been above board according to those in the know but league and team operators have to be keeping a close eye on what is going on with the News of the World unraveling because it could have a real impact on their businesses.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.