In a surprising development, Turner Broadcasting System
Inc. and NBC -- shut out of the latest National Football League television package -- are
discussing plans to create and own a rival professional-football league, which could begin
play in 1999.
The league would be owned and operated by TBS Inc. and NBC,
and it would include about 10 teams in major markets, according to sources close to the
situation. It was unclear at press time, however, whether the league would go head-to-head
during the fall NFL season, or whether it would play its games during the spring and
Time Warner Inc., which owns TBS Inc., released a statement
confirming that it is speaking to NBC about the 'possibility of starting a new
professional-football league.' An NBC statement added that the networks are in the
midst of 'intense research and developmental analysis, which will continue for the
next eight weeks.'
The announcement stunned industry observers, who thought
that both Turner Network Television and NBC would be out of the pro-football business when
they lost their respective NFL packages three weeks ago. TNT lost its share of the 18-game
NFL Sunday-night cable package to ESPN's $600 million bid over eight years, while NBC
lost its American Football Conference package to CBS' $500 million-per-year bid.
Steve Heyer, newly named TBS Inc. president and chief
operating officer, did say in a conference call last week that TNT is devising a
programming strategy to fill the NFL gap.
ESPN's only comment was that it has 'a terrific
NFL and college-football package.'
Fox spokesman Vince Wladika echoed ESPN's statement by
saying that Fox has 'the greatest draw in television' with its NFL broadcast
But Turner and NBC will face an uphill battle in making the
league a success. Several other upstart professional-football-league ventures over the
past two decades weren't able to compete financially with the juggernaut NFL. With
the television deal already in place, however, one sports observer said the league has
already saved 'millions of dollars.'
John Mansell, analyst for Paul Kagan Associates Inc., said
a new league could work if it can keep costs down.
'In a lot of major markets where the [NFL] games are
sold out and have lengthy waiting lists, a new league could do well if you price it
right,' Mansell said.