Last night, PBS stations around the country aired the Frontline documentary League of Denial, which detailed how the NFL not only covered up medical evidence linking the game of football with brain injuries, but also tried to ruin the reputations of nearly every medical researcher involved in such studies. (If you missed it, you can click here to watch League of Denial in its entirety.)
Toward the end, the documentary mentioned the NFL’s $765 million class-action lawsuit settlement with more than 4,500 former players, who were seeking damages for the NFL’s role in hiding information from them about brain injuries. As part of that settlement, the NFL did not have to admit liability for its actions, nor did it have to make any claims about whether or not football caused long-term brain damage.
$765 million seems like a lot of money. The NFL, however, can afford it, because they’re not the ones footing the bill. You are.
If you’re one of the roughly 98 million Americans who subscribes to a cable or satellite TV package that includes ESPN, your money will be paying off this legal settlement. Here’s how that works:
ESPN charges pay TV companies roughly $5.40/month per subscriber for its flagship channel. With a subscriber base of 97,985,000 (as of last July), ESPN collects more than $529 million per month, just from those subscriber fees. Using that cash, ESPN paid the NFL $8.8 billion, or $1.1 billion per year, to televise Monday Night Football from 2006 to 2013. Two years ago, ESPN renewed its deal with the NFL for $15.2 billion over 8 years, or $1.9 billion per year.
Those averages aren’t entirely accurate, though. ESPN’s contracts with pro and college sports leagues contain escalator clauses that allow them to pay rights fees incrementally over the life of their contracts. That’s because ESPN’s deals with pay TV carriers also include escalator clauses, which drive up the cost of your cable bill every year.
ESPN’s escalator clause with Time Warner Cable is 6.5%, so let’s posit that ESPN has a 6.5% escalator in its deals with the NFL. Here’s how much ESPN would pay the NFL over the life of its two contracts:
|In the year...||ESPN paid the NFL...||In the year...||ESPN will pay the NFL...|
|2006||$890 million||2014||$1.509 billion|
|2007||$940 million||2015||$1.607 billion|
|2008||$1 billion||2016||$1.711 billion|
|2009||$1.06 billion||2017||$1.822 billion|
|2010||$1.12 billion||2018||$1.94 billion|
|2011||$1.19 billion||2019||$2.067 billion|
|2012||$1.26 billion||2020||$2.2 billion|
|2013||$1.34 billion||2021||$2.344 billion|
Keep in mind this is just for Monday Night Football. The NFL has separate deals with CBS, Fox, and NBC that will bring in more billions per year. Also keep in mind that all the money in that table comes right out of the cable or satellite TV bills of almost 98 million Americans.
Now let’s examine how those numbers relate to that $765 million lawsuit settlement. According to the terms of the settlement, the NFL will pay players 50% of the settlement money, or $337.5 million, over the first three years. That’s $112.5 million per year.
Using the numbers above, we can see that ESPN’s payments to the NFL increased $80 million from the 2012 season to the 2013 season. ESPN’s payment will increase $169 million in 2014, the first year of its new contract, and $98 million in 2015. Those increases add up to $347 million. So just the increases in ESPN’s rights fees are more than enough to cover that part of the settlement.
Then, the NFL will distribute the other half of the settlement over the next 17 years. That’s less than $19.9 million per year. ESPN’s rights fee increases will have 98.6% of that covered within 3 years.
Assuming that ESPN’s subscriber base remains constant — which, by the way, is not the safest of assumptions — pay TV customers will chip in roughly $1.15 per year each into this settlement for the first three years. That money is funneled from your monthly TV bill through ESPN and sent to the NFL. So is the additional $12.53 that the NFL will take from your cable bill this season.
Here’s the kicker: whether you watch Monday Night Football or not doesn’t matter. As long as you have a cable package that includes ESPN, you’re paying for everything you saw in League of Denial — every rheumatologist that strenuously denied the scientific evidence linking football to brain injuries, every lawyer that tried to obstruct players from getting the help they needed, and every half-truth that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told to Congress and the media. (In case you were wondering, here’s how much of your money Roger Goodell gets.) Your cable bill is the gas that fuels the NFL’s engine, and ESPN is driving the car. Little wonder that ESPN agreed to the NFL’s demands to distance itself from League of Denial.
Of course, ESPN officials can claim that Monday Night Football is the highest rated program on cable TV. And they would be correct. MNF has averaged more than 13 million viewers per game so far this season. Where does that leave the other 84 to 85 million who paid for the game and didn’t watch it? Are they okay with footing the bill for a league that’s still so cavalier about the health of its own players?
We vote with our wallets more often than we vote with our ballots. If you don’t approve of how the NFL is handling this matter, the best way to send a message is through your TV subscription. Getting rid of ESPN, either by scaling back to basic cable or cutting the cord entirely, will help send a message to the NFL that you’re not willing to pay for its obfuscation anymore. Until enough people stop paying, though, this league can easily afford to remain in denial, and football players at all levels will continue to suffer from brain injuries. Whether that’s the sporting future we want is up to you.