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NBC is back in NFL

Also in '06, `MNF' to move to ESPN

In a deal that Patriots owner Robert Kraft called "the biggest in TV history when you sit back and think about it," the National Football League yesterday completed a major reshaping of its TV packages via a series of broadcast agreements that take effect in the 2006 season.

Those deals culminated yesterday with the announcement that ESPN will be acquiring the "Monday Night Football" franchise for eight years, reportedly for a figure in the $1 billion range annually, roughly a 70 percent increase over what ABC had been paying. Meanwhile, the league's prime-time broadcast network package moves to Sunday nights on NBC for $600 million, a 9 percent increase in rights fees.

When the new agreements go into effect, the NFL's total broadcast package will have increased more than 50 percent over this coming season, going from $2.45 billion per season to $3.74 billion per season. And that number is likely to top $4 billion when the league decides how to parcel out a seven- or eight-game late-season package of Thursday and Saturday night games that would begin Thanksgiving night.

That package, which appears to be a smaller deal, actually could be the lever to bring a second full-fledged all-sports network into being, with the primary contenders a Rupert Murdoch entry or a major expansion of The NFL Network.

"There are enough people interested in starting a second all-sports network that make us [NFL] think there will be a second all-sports network," Kraft said last night. "It would have the starting point of those seven or eight weeks of NFL games, but we've kept the option of making it a full season after six years."

Kraft credited NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the league's staff for doing the bulk of the work on the deals that were announced yesterday, but the entire NFL TV package reflects a cardinal principle of the Patriots' management style: Have a long-term business plan in place.

While ABC had an exclusive option on the prime-time package until this Oct. 31, the Disney people opted to waive it last Friday.

The NFL, anticipating that would happen, had NBC executives on another floor of the league's New York headquarters and the broad outline of the deal announced yesterday was in place that day.

For NBC, the deal was a no-brainer. It gets an established (by ESPN) franchise on the only night of the week (Sunday) that it was interested in airing NFL games.

The guidelines that resulted in yesterday's deals were set in motion with the Fox and CBS deals ($8 billion combined for six years) last fall. They contained the provisions for flexible scheduling for the prime-time package.

To make flexible scheduling work, the NFL decided that its prime-time package -- which always had been "Monday Night Football" -- would move to Sundays so that adjusting game times would involve only changing starting times. That would be a major inconvenience, but hardly on the scale of moving games from Sunday to Monday.

Highlights of the deal for NBC:

* The network will air the now-traditional Thursday night season opener, plus 16 Sunday night games, two playoff games on wild-card weekend, and three exhibition games.

* It gets two Super Bowls, in 2009 and 2012.

* NBC will air an NFL pregame show from 7-8 p.m. with the Sunday night games kicking off at 8:15 p.m., about 25 minutes earlier than now.

* NBC's parent company, General Electric, also benefits from the deal, having its healthcare technology, security equipment, electrical products (including lighting), and financial services associated with the league, plus international exhibition games, particularly in China.

"In the current media environment, Sunday now is the better night for our prime-time broadcast package," said Tagliabue. "The earlier kickoff times for both packages, NBC's Sunday night programming devoted to the NFL, and flexible scheduling for Sunday night are all positive changes. ESPN will continue to do a tremendous job of reaching a wide audience on basic cable with `Monday Night Football.' "

The benefits to ESPN:

* It inherits "Monday Night Football," which celebrates its 36th anniversary on ABC this season. The agreement calls for 17 games per season, starting at 8:40 p.m. Eastern Time, about 35 minutes earlier than ABC's kickoff times.

* As it did on Sundays, ESPN will make the Monday night games available to an over-the-air partner in the participating teams' home markets.

* "Sports television's preeminent series, `Monday Night Football', moves to the industry's preeminent brand, ESPN," said Michael D. Eisner, Disney CEO.

NBC had walked away from the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA, saying the huge rights fees didn't make sense. Now, like CBS before it, NBC has come back to the NFL fold.

When NBC gave up the American Football Conference package after the 1998 Super Bowl, it paved the way for CBS to return to the NFL broadcast "team." CBS had given up the National Football Conference in 1994, when Fox came aboard.

Now everyone is part of the action, with perhaps a new player to be named.

"No league can come close to having all the major players -- Disney (ESPN/ABC), Viacom (CBS), NBC Universal, and Fox as their broadcast partners," said Kraft.

Nor can any league's teams be guaranteed of $118 million each per year (if the rights figure is $3.74 billion) or $125 million (if it reaches $4 billion).

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