NFL Plans to Explore New Net


The National Football League has until Feb. 15 to decide whether it will opt out of its current eight-year, $18.3 billion television package and talk to other potential suitors.

At stake are several new initiatives the NFL is considering, including plans to launch its own television channel and to make the league's video archives available to fans via digital video-on-demand services.

The league has until Feb. 15 to exercise the clause, at which time it would have 30 days to renegotiate a new agreement with its current rightsholders — ABC, CBS, ESPN and the Fox broadcast network. The existing agreement ends in 2005.

If an agreement can't be reached within 30 days, the league may negotiate with outside parties.

Given the volatile sports-rights marketplace — and the fact that higher annual payments will kick in during the final years of the agreement — most industry observers don't believe the NFL will walk away from its lucrative current pact. But a new arrangement could allow the league to implement several initiatives that it feels would better promote the game.

The NFL is considering plans to launch its own television channel and to make the league's video archives available to fans via video-on-demand, said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

The service could also feature interactive games, high-definition TV broadcasts and "NFL channel concepts." He said the league would authorize and oversee the channel but wouldn't run it.

"I think the future is a positive one if you deal with it thoughtfully, intelligently and with some vision," Tagliabue said at a recent a Federal Communications Bar Association luncheon. "We have been exploring all kinds of different services."

If the league goes ahead it would join the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League in creating a stand-alone channel.

More night games

Another change the league may look to implement: An additional game may be slated on Sunday and Monday nights, Tagliabue said. Currently, ESPN and ABC each offer exclusive telecasts on Sunday and Monday nights, respectively — the only games played at those times. One option could be to place a second primetime game on a new NFL channel to help boost its value, sources said.

"In the current TV universe, to have only one game in a time slot is problematic," Tagliabue said recently.

Presumably, the extra game would allow the network carrier to switch to the more competitive match-up.

But NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy cautioned that the projects discussed by the commissioner could not be implemented within the current NFL TV deal, which expires in 2005.

"These [projects] would be possibilities under the next set of contracts," McCarthy said.

On the pay-per-view front, Tagliabue confirmed that the discussions are ongoing between the league and DirecTV Inc. about renewing its exclusive rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket
out-of-market subscription package, but would not comment further. The direct-broadcast satellite provider holds exclusive rights to the popular package, but cable operators have long been lobbying the league for it.