Tagliabue ponders next TV contract

Growth of own network makes it an option in future for commissioner

Pro Football

September 14, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Back in the old days at the NFL Network, the game plan was to supplement the coverage provided by CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN. Showing live regular-season games was not in the playbook.

Yesterday, barely 10 months after its launch, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the network has been so successful that televising regular-season games is an option that is being seriously considered. The NFL might even think about making less money from television over the short term to get its own distribution system up and running, he said.

Tagliabue's comments came at a news conference to kick off the NFL Network's deal to be carried on Comcast, the country's biggest cable operator. Terms were not disclosed.

When the league's network launched Nov. 4, it was available only to DirecTV's 13 million subscribers. The network is now available to 8 million customers who subscribe to Comcast's digital service.

The commissioner's comments also come as the NFL is in "heavy discussions" with its network television partners to replace the $17.6 billion in contracts that expire after the 2005 season.

"As we look ahead to the next 15-25 years of television, the idea that we might have some number of games on our network has some strategic value, some appeal," Tagliabue said. "If that's correct - and it's something that we're looking at hard right now - then the question becomes, should we start sooner or should we start later?

"Our broadcasting committee has been very impressed with the quality of the network in its first half-season, very impressed with the services that we provided during the preseason."

NFL fans who want to see more than just the games that are televised in their markets must now pay $219 to subscribe to DirecTV's "Sunday Ticket." DirecTV has had the out-of-market package exclusively since its inception in 1994, and in 2002 the company signed a new five-year deal with the NFL, for which it pays $400 million a year. DirecTV retains exclusive satellite rights through 2007, but the NFL can offer it to cable companies after the 2005 season. Tagliabue stressed he considers games on over-the-air TV and basic cable to be the league's primary broadcast outlets. But he was quick to point out the NFL Network's advantages.

"We control the quality, we control the mix of product, we control, to some degree with our partners, the kinds of services we can have," he said.

And Tagliabue said it might make sense for the league to "forgo some short-term revenue for the long-term value of having that kind of distribution system that would complement all the other distribution systems that are out there."

The commissioner said he expects to have new network and cable TV agreements to announce within six to 12 months.

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