The door is almost shut on the U.S. Football League for a network television package in the fall of 1986, when the league shifts from a spring to a fall schedule in competition with the National Football League, according to network sources.
But these same sources say at least one network is likely to televise USFL games in 1987, if the league survives.
Both ABC, which owns the rights to USFL spring games for the next two seasons, and NBC have told USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons and Chicago owner Eddie Einhorn, who are handling the league's television negotiations, that they are not interested in televising games in the fall of 1986.
CBS still is examining the issue, but is unlikely to carry a USFL package in 1986, the last year of the NFL's five-year, $2 billion contract with the three networks, the sources said.
The networks' position is in sharp contrast to the word being spread by USFL sources that there will be a network contract for the fall of 1986, the only question being the amount. The USFL has a three-year, $70 million cable deal with ESPN for 1985, 1986 and 1987. ESPN would carry games in either the spring or the fall, according to Jim Byrne, a league spokesman.
Neither Simmons nor Einhorn was available for comment yesterday, but Byrne said, "Discussions are continuing between the USFL and all three networks for 1986 and beyond. We still think it's a very open matter."
Contacted yesterday, Jim Spence, senior vice president of ABC Sports, said, "We had told them we were not interested in the USFL for the fall of 1986. That's correct."
An NBC official, who did not want to be identified confirmed his network also had said no to the USFL for 1986.
Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports, said CBS would not consider telecasting USFL games in the fall of 1986 unless another network is involved.
"We are still examining it," he said. "We have said the USFL is a potential business opportunity we have to examine if there was any other offer of contract rights. But it's not something that we're looking for. We're not trying to induce them to the fall. But if they came to the fall, we might participate if another network was participating."
ABC also owns exclusive negotiating rights with the USFL, and Spence said, "We have not released them. They can't (negotiate with NBC or CBS) until they have satisfied their obligation to ABC Sports."
According to network sources, there have been USFL contracts, but no negotiations with CBS and NBC.
Under its contract with ABC, signed before the league started two seasons ago, that network holds options for the 1985 and 1986 spring seasons. "Our agreement comtemplates (having) spring football each of those years," Spence said. "As far as (the spring of) '86 is concerned, we're in the midst of discussions with the league to sort it out."
The USFL was placed a gag rule on its owners and team officials -- punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 -- pending a Nov. 13 press conference in New York. At that time the league is likely to announce 14 teams will play next season (with three consolidations and Einhorn's franchise dark for a year), realignment, player allocation from teams that folded or merged and a scheduling format (but not a schedule).
One issue that won't be resolved then is whether the 1986 schedule will be played entirely in the fall or if there will be a longer, split schedule with as many as 12 games each in the spring and the fall.
One league source said despite what the networks are saying, he expects the USFL to have a network television deal in the fall of 1986.
"1986 is the proving ground," the source said. "Nobody can deal if you don't have any kind of a track record. How can you deal for '87 if you aren't on in '86? There's a very strong indication that no one network is going to make a commitment at this point. The deal, when made, will include two networks."
Network sources said that because of the volatile situation in the televising of football, especially with the colleges, no network will commit itself three years in advance. "We will know more in 18 months than we do now," said the NBC source.