NFL Deal Spawns Weekly Offer

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The National Football League's recent decision to restructure its "NFL Sunday Ticket" package in order to settle a lawsuit won't cause other major sports leagues to follow suit-even though two of the circuits face similar legal challenges.

On March 3, the NFL settled a four-year-old legal action in which a number of fans claimed the league violated antitrust law by not offering DirecTV Inc. customers purchasing options beyond the $169 full-season Sunday Ticket deal. Pending approval from a Philadelphia-based federal judge, the direct-broadcast satellite provider will now offer viewers the option of purchasing the 17-week NFL Sunday Ticket package on a week-to-week basis for $29.99, or in full for $169.

The league also will pay $7.5 million to 1.8 million subscribers who have purchased the subscription package since 1997.

Although DirecTV officials would not comment on anything specifically related to the litigation, vice president of marketing Jayne Hancock said it expects the full-season package to remain the most popular choice.

"While individual Sunday packages may be attractive to some customers, we believe the full season subscription to NFL Sunday Ticket will continue to be the choice of the overwhelming majority of our customers," Hancock said. "Nonetheless, we're happy to be able to provide added flexibility to those customers who may wish to purchase the individual Sunday packages."

Though the NFL may be altering its out-of-market package, none of the other pro league or college subscription packages are rushing to change formats. And that's despite the fact that both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League were hit with similar lawsuits last year.

Several commercial establishments in San Diego sued the two leagues last year because they wished to purchase a single team's slate of games, rather than the entire package, said Paul Kagan Associates Inc. analyst John Mansell. He said the NFL's decision could influence other sports leagues.

ESPN already offers its "ESPN GamePlan" college-football package week to week, but the programmer said it has no plans to change the structure of any of its other out-of-market packages.

A Major League Baseball spokeswoman said the league had no immediate plans to retool its "MLB Extra Innings" out-of-market package in light of the NFL's settlement. NBA executives would not comment on the matter. An NHL executive said policy prohibits the league from commenting on ongoing litigation.

As part of the NFL's settlement, the league also allocated $2.9 million worth of coupons that consumers who filed claims may use to purchase league merchandise through its Web site. It also agreed to pay $3.7 million in legal fees and $2.3 million in other administrative costs.

Weekly sales would start with the 2001 season and continue through 2002, said NFL director of corporate communications Brian McCarthy. At that time, the league may reassess its options.

He added that the league admitted no wrongdoing and wanted to end the long-running dispute.

"We would rather focus on the action on the field, rather than in the courts," he said.

NFL Sunday Ticket is DirecTV's most popular out-of-market package. Last year, it pulled in about 1.2 million buys and generated about $194 million in revenue, according to the Carmel Group.

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