At first glance, the set of NFL Total Access — the NFL Network’s flagship program — looks like that of any sports show. Towering pictures of gridiron greats like Walter Payton and Jerry Rice line the walls, pigskin paraphernalia clutter the desks, and approximately 3,512 NFL logos pop out in every direction. But look closer, and you’ll notice something different. In the makeup room, Polaroids of Troy Aikman and Ben Roethlisberger are posted on the wall next to those of former guests like Jim Belushi, CSI’s Marg Helgenberger, and Alias’ Michael Vartan. On stage, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin is telling host Rich Eisen all about his trick-or-treating adventures with Tai Babilonia. And over in a corner, Christopher Reid, who put the ”Kid” in ’80s rap duo Kid ‘N Play, is standing around, doing a whole lot of nothing. Why is he here? No one seems to know for sure (and in case you’re wondering — and I know you are — he no longer sports his trademark high-top fade). Apparently, this is where celebrities — past and present — go to talk sports. ”I love football,” says Garlin, who’s wearing a vintage Gale Sayers jersey. ”I could be sitting home in March and watching NFL Total Access and be very, very happy.”
This sports-meets-celebrity crossover isn’t accidental. When the NFL Network launched in November 2003, its aim was to appeal to casual viewers as well as hardcore sports fans. While other Network programs like Playbook deal more with X’s and O’s, on Total Access you’re just as likely to see Toby Keith and Stephen Baldwin giving their picks for upcoming games (Holly Robinson Peete went a perfect 10-0, although Eisen jokes she may have taken part in ”a bit of insider trading,” seeing as her husband is Carolina Panthers QB Rodney Peete) or a celebrity fantasy football league featuring folks like Garlin, Dean Cain (an ex-player himself), Paul Rudd, and Ray’s Regina King. Even one of the guys who helps set up satellite interviews happens to be the former drummer for the Turtles … although that’s probably just a nifty coincidence. ”There’s no real surprise when you talk about the intersection of sports and entertainment in our culture,” says Network president and CEO Steve Bornstein. ”And with NFL Total Access, the NFL Network is trying to position itself as being able to do both.” Still, don’t hold your breath waiting for a scantily clad Janet Jackson or Nicollette Sheridan to stroll on set. That’s because the Network is owned and operated by the NFL — which has already taken hits for steamy stunts featuring both celebrities. How much further will the net go to avoid controversy? ”The only thing we don’t discuss is gambling,” says Eisen. ”But other than that, we’re free to roll. I wouldn’t have come here had it been any different.”
Since its November 2003 debut, the Network has secured more than 23 million subscribers, making it one of the fastest-growing cable and satellite start-ups in history (although the network has yet to post official Nielsen ratings, due to its small size). And that number keeps growing: Right as Garlin was trading barbs with Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ronde Barber, the Network was busy sealing another distribution deal with cable provider Adelphia (adding to previous pacts with giants like Comcast and DirecTV). The big question is, will the NFL Network land broadcast rights for a possible new package of Thursday- and Saturday-night games that the league is considering for the 2006 season? If nothing else, the Network’s mere presence gives the NFL enormous leverage once it begins negotiating with other channels. (Fox and CBS recently extended their contracts with the league to continue airing Sunday-afternoon games for $4.3 billion and $3.7 billion, respectively. That’s right — billion.) ”If the league says we’re gonna give it to you, we would take it and we wouldn’t fumble it,” says Eisen. ”And if we get it, look out.” So take a seat on the bench, John Madden, and make way for the new Kid in town.