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NFL Mulls 'Major' Change With TV

League Also Considers Games in China

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page D01

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 4 -- NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday there remains disagreement on what the rights fee should be for ABC's "Monday Night Football" and ESPN's Sunday pro football packages, and held open the possibility the league could "do something that's really bold and major and not just business as usual in terms of how we grow our television services."

Tagliabue would not specify what the new "bold and major" initiative might entail at his annual state of the NFL news conference but did say, "we are giving very serious consideration to being part of the launch of another major sports network on cable and satellite television. That's a complicated thing, but we're looking at that very seriously. That's a strategic thing, which anticipates the future of television technology and the future interests of where people are going to be in terms of digital television technology."

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday there remains disagreement on what the rights fee should be for ABC's "Monday Night Football" and ESPN's Sunday pro football packages. (David J. Phillip - AP)

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Other league sources indicated afterward that Tagliabue was referring to statements by Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., the parent company of Fox, about the possibility of launching a major cable/satellite sports network that would challenge ESPN.

ABC and ESPN, both owned by the Walt Disney Company, have an exclusive negotiating period with the NFL through October. Tagliabue said the league "has an interest in having them stay with us" and that the negotiations on a new deal will continue. "We have a disagreement about what the rights fee should be, based not on wishful thinking but on what we think the rights fees would be in the marketplace as it is, with tremendous interest in NFL football."

One Fox executive also speculated Tagliabue was mentioning the possibility of a new cable network in order to get Disney to increase its rights fee offer for the Monday and Sunday night packages. In the last contract, ABC paid $4.4 billion over eight years for Monday nights, and ESPN paid $4 billion for the Sunday night package.

The NFL's eight-year, $17.2 billion cable and network broadcast deals run out after the 2005 season. Last November, the league entered into new six-year deals starting in 2006 with Fox ($4.3 billion) and CBS ($3.7 billion) for its Sunday afternoon packages, leaving open the Monday night, Sunday night and a proposed Thursday/Saturday prime-time package that would be scheduled in the final months of the season.

A Fox spokesman said the network would have no comment, but Murdoch said Wednesday in a conference call with media analysts and financial reporters that his company would not launch a new sports network "without a pretty full NFL franchise."

In addition to the Sunday afternoon package, Fox is believed to be interested in the Monday night and Thursday/Saturday packages. Tagliabue also said the league's NFL Network could be a possibility for the Thursday/Saturday games and has mentioned NBC, which does not have any NFL programming.

Tagliabue spent an hour answering questions Friday. He held open the possibility of the NFL playing two preseason games in China before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and a regular season game outside the United States, perhaps next season. Both would be firsts for the league.

He also said he was not quite as optimistic as NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw on the possibility of sharing more of the league's revenue pool with players. Upshaw had said Thursday he was hopeful the sides could come to an accord in order to extend the collective bargaining agreement through 2011. The current CBA has its last capped year in 2007, with an uncapped season in 2008 if there is no extension.

"I think we have a long way to go," Tagliabue said. "I know Gene said he was optimistic, but he's also a realist. I don't know if I'm optimistic or pessimistic because I think we have a long way to go in getting a consensus that's going to get [24 owners'] votes. Everybody recognizes this has been a very solid system. But to deal with the economic issues, including the sharing issues, we have a lot of consensus yet to build."

Tagliabue said in 2005, the NFL will become the first league to have average payrolls of $100 million per team. "That's a system that's working," he said, "and we want to keep it in place."

Tagliabue indicated he sees no need at the moment to add a penalty structure for teams that do not interview minority candidates for front office positions. Under current rules, a team faces a fine if it does not interview at least one minority candidate for any vacant head coaching position. Teams are encouraged to do the same in the front office, but no fines are meted out if they do not.

"I think the first priority is to continue to build the pool of qualified talent," Tagliabue said. "We've been doing that. We've been running executive education seminars at the Stanford Business School. We've been aggressively reaching out through the search process to bring minority talent into the league. . . . But for us to sit in New York and point our finger to 32 teams and say we'll fine you if you don't do X or Y, it would not be a constructive step at this point."

Tagliabue indicated the league remained committed to getting a franchise in Los Angeles, and expects to get final term sheets from the four areas under consideration -- the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Coliseum and the cities of Anaheim and Carson, Calif. -- in May. He said the league wants to play in that market by 2008 or 2009 and "what matters to me is that we get it right for 100 years."

He also indicated he was satisfied Jacksonville has lived up to its advertised billing as "the little engine that could" in staging Super Bowl XXXIX in the smallest market to host to the game. He said it likely will be back here, probably in the next decade, despite a week of rain and cool temperatures.

"I met a lot of fans in the hotel, and one of them had the most apt comment of all," Tagliabue said. " 'I don't care about rain. You don't have to shovel it.' "

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