ESPN Intercepts NFL's Season-Opening Game

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ESPN, which hopes to enhance ratings for its $4.9 billion National Football League package, will televise the league's first-ever primetime season opener on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Though the agreement only covers the 2002 season kickoff, ESPN executives hope the game will be successful enough to become an annual event.

The game is expected to pit the New York Giants against the San Francisco 49ers, pending final league approval of the schedule in early April, said ESPN. The telecast will replace one of the cable network's three annual Thursday night contests, part of its 18-game primetime NFL package.

ESPN and NFL executives will evaluate the performance of the telecast before deciding whether to schedule it for 2003.

"This is truly a landmark enhancement to our longstanding NFL relationship," said ESPN president George Bodenheimer.

ESPN is hoping the game will jump-start its NFL ratings. Last year, the network averaged a 6.34 rating, down from a 7.05 in 2000. At worst, the game should improve the network's Thursday night primetime ratings, which averaged a 4.2.

Even as it enhanced its NFL slate, ESPN punted on another pro-football contract. Both ESPN and TNN: The National Network lost their TV rights to the Arena Football League, which NBC scooped up as part of a "revenue-sharing" deal.

The cable channels will lose rights to air the high-scoring, indoor AFL contests beginning in 2003, although sources said neither network is stewing over failing to secure what is essentially an AFL time buy.

TNN carried 12 regular-season games, while ESPN and ESPN2 aired a total of five playoff games. Broadcast network ABC carried the AFL's championship game, the Arena Bowl.

Four A Week

NBC will produce four regional games a week over a 15-week regular season, beginning next February. The network will also televise all post-season games and the Arena Bowl.

NBC will use the AFL to fill the void left by sports defections, including its recent loss of the National Basketball Association, its late-1990s loss of NFL rights and the failure of its XFL joint venture with World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. last year.

The two-year agreement calls for NBC to gain an equity stake in the league — AFL owners own nine of the 16 teams — as well as share in the revenues derived from the value of its franchises. After two years, the network can exercise several four-year renewal options, in perpetuity.