How FOX landed the NFC

This week marks the unofficial start to the NFL season, as teams will play the first of four meaningless games to prepare for the 2013 season. Soon we’ll all be huddled around the television in the midst of autumn cheering on our favorite teams. Being a New Englander, I’ll be tuning into CBS most of the season to watch the Patriots. As for fans of the NFC, FOX will once again carry those games. But how exactly did FOX, once a small network struggling to compete with the established juggernauts, get the rights to broadcast the most successful conference of the past six years? The answer came from a college commencement speech.

At the Lasell College 2013 commencement, former FOX Broadcasting Chairwoman Lucy Salhany delivered the commencement address to the Newton, Massachusetts college. While sharing her experiences of her career and personal life, Salhany told the story of how FOX gained control of NFL broadcasting rights.

It was in 1993 when Salhany, the first ever female to head a television network, decided to go after the broadcast rights, as the NFL’s current deals were up for renewal. It appeared to be a long shot for Salhany and the network:

They were established networks, and we were the upstart network. They had relationships with the owners and the commissioner; we didn’t. And worst of all, I was a woman who knew nothing about pro football and I was heading up the negotiating team. Signs for disaster.

So I had to get a quick education about the teams, the league. I didn’t even know there were different [conferences]. On the way to the meeting, we flew down to Dallas from L.A. and on the way to the meeting, I freaked. The broadcast committee of the NFL included the owners of the Dallas Cowboys , Denver Broncos, and the New England Patriots.

I knew I would panic when it came time to talk to these guys about the league and the teams. So I wrote the AFC teams on the palm of this hand [left] and the NFC on the palm of this hand [right].

I had to sit there like this during the meeting because I was sweating and I was afraid [the teams] would run. Every time they would ask me something about the teams, I’d look down and I was very cool about it. I just sailed through that meeting. And then they said to me, “Which would you like, the AFC or the NFC?”

Listen, I was from FOX; we had just gone to seven nights. We were the network of The Simpsons and In Living Color, and I’m talking to these 10-foot tall behemos about football.

I went “well, I’m right handed.”

They said “what?”

I said “Oh, NFC!”

The NFC became extremely profitable for FOX because we were mainly in the NFC markets. Fortunately, no one saw the handwriting on my hands.

The deal came as a surprise to many, as CBS was stripped of football for the first time since 1956.

This season marks the 20th season of the NFL on FOX, which to this day is running strong.

So if anyone asks why you have to tune into FOX to watch an NFC game, it’s because Lucy Salhany wasn’t a lefty.