When the radio rights to broadcast NFL games in Spanish were up for renewal before this season, league officials negotiated a new contract with a Hispanic broadcaster, rather than sell the rights to an English-language network, as they have done in the past.

Under the new deal, more NFL games are being broadcast in Spanish on the radio than in previous years, including "Monday Night Football" for the first time. In addition, eight NFL teams, up from five last year, started the season broadcasting games in Spanish on local radio.

The league's increased radio exposure in Spanish follows last season's decision by Fox and ABC to offer television broadcasts of its NFL games in Spanish. Viewers with stereo television sets can receive Spanish broadcasts by using the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) feature on their sets.

"Clearly, we recognize the importance of the Hispanic community to the league," said Dennis Lewin, the NFL's senior vice president for broadcasting and network television. "It is a very important segment of our audience and we want to do everything possible to maximize our efforts toward that audience."

NFL officials and teams in markets with large Spanish-speaking populations are stepping up their efforts to attract more Hispanic fans because of the potential revenue available from an ethnic minority group that spends $325 billion on consumer products annually. The league and teams are hoping that Spanish speakers will increase their radio and television audiences and spur ticket and merchandise sales.

"It is a very smart marketing decision," said Marc Ganis, CEO of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago consulting firm. "The Hispanic segment is the fastest-growing population base in the country. Their interest in the NFL is going to be important to the continued growth of the league."

Ganis and other sports industry experts said that it is too early to say how much money the NFL and its teams could gain in potential revenue from the Hispanic community.

Raul Lopez, senior vice president of Miami-based Strategy Research Corp., recently released a marketing study of the Hispanic community that said Hispanics spend a higher proportion of their income on sports and entertainment than any other ethnic group.

"We are big sports fans across the board," he said. "Any organization that ignores this market is handicapping itself."

The marketing study by Lopez's group reports that 44 percent of Hispanics said they watched NFL games on television during the past year, compared with 66 percent of whites and 70 percent of blacks. Also, the study shows that 12 percent of Hispanics, compared with 27 percent of whites and 28 percent of blacks, listened to radio broadcasts of NFL games.

According to the results of a Harris Poll last August, a higher proportion of Hispanics said they follow professional football compared with other segments of the population. Sixty-four percent of Hispanic respondents said they followed the sport, compared with 58 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites.

"The longer they are here, the more likely they are to be fans of American sports," said Lopez, adding that U.S.-born and second-generation Latinos are more likely to be fans than those born abroad.

American football "is a sport that is coming into its own in Hispanic communities," said Tony Hernandez, president of Miami-based Latino Broadcasting Co., which does the Spanish radio broadcasts of the NFL's Monday night games and will do postseason games. "It's catching on. . . . This enables the NFL a chance to reach the young Hispanic athletes, hopefully get young Hispanic kids to pick up football, like they pick up soccer and baseball."

Hernandez, a former vice president and general manager of ESPN Latin America, said his company's Spanish NFL broadcasts are accessible to about 84 percent of the total Hispanic market in the United States.

Hernandez bought the Spanish-language radio rights from CBS, which had the English and Spanish rights three years ago. This year, when the Spanish rights came up for renewal, NFL officials decided to negotiate the Spanish-language radio rights separately for the first time.

"We wanted to be in control of the distribution of the product as opposed to going through a third party," said Lewin of the NFL.

While league officials are getting more involved in developing business relationships with the Hispanic community, some NFL teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, which are located in top Hispanic markets, have had long-standing relationships with the Latino communities in their cities.

For 20 years, the Cowboys have broadcast their games in Spanish on the radio, team officials said. The Cowboys, who have a large following throughout Texas and in parts of Mexico, also televise some of their preseason games and scrimmages on Spanish-language television.

The Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers also have been broadcasting games in Spanish for many years. When the season began, three teams--the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers--started radio broadcasts in Spanish, but the 49ers and Jets games are no longer on the air.

Spokesmen for the two teams said the broadcasts were discontinued because the businessman contracted to produce the shows--Anthony Eros, president of San Diego-based Hispanic Sports Marketing Inc.--had financial problems. Both teams are working on plans to resume broadcasts in Spanish next season. Eros did not return several phone calls.

Despite those problems, league officials said they expect more teams to launch Spanish-language broadcasts in the future. Washington Redskins spokesman John Maroon said the club is looking at ways to broaden its fan base in the Hispanic community, including a possible radio broadcast in Spanish.

CAPTION: Mike Chaves, left, and Neil Fernandez comments to a Hispanic audience in Tampa, one of six NFL cities currently broadcasting games in Spanish. The Redskins may explore this endeavor as well.