SBJ/June 27 - July 3, 2011/Media

NFL shops new 8-game package

The NFL is negotiating with TV networks about a new early-season eight-game package that would start as soon as next season, according to several sources.

The potential Thursday night package could be worth as much as $700 million per year, the sources said. Such a windfall, providing a sudden increase in overall league revenue, could help soften the blow to the players from the emerging labor deal in which they are likely to receive a smaller percentage of revenue than they previously have received.

The new package would not affect NFL Network’s schedule of live games, as the league has decided to keep its channel’s eight-game Thursday night slate in the second half of the season intact.

The NFL declined to comment.

The league is shopping the early-season package to interested networks. Sources said the league currently has the rights to take enough games from CBS and Fox’s Sunday afternoon schedules to fill the new eight-game package and does not have to wait for those contracts to expire after the 2013 season.

The new revenue could offer solace to the league after it was rebuffed on its efforts to expand the schedule to 18 games from 16 games. The players have fought fiercely against that proposal, so in a way, the league is selling a new half-season this way.

Turner and Comcast have emerged as the most serious bidders for such a package. Comcast wants the package for Versus, while Turner, which carried a Sunday night NFL package on TNT from 1990-97, has privately craved returning NFL games to its schedule. Turner could put the package on TBS, TNT or truTV.

Fox is expected to kick the tires on a package for its FX network, but cable industry sources said cable operators have surcharge protection against FX, which would make it difficult for FX to afford such a package.

No other dark horses have emerged yet, according to sources. It’s believed that ESPN would at least take a look at the Thursday night package, as would Spike TV.

“There’s going to be another package because when this [labor] deal finally happens, somebody is going to have to pay for it,” said one network executive, who asked not to be identified. “Part of it is going to be paid by a new NFL package.”

Thursday night games generally are not popular with coaches and players, and they usually don’t draw the audience that NFL games bring in other time slots. But the league views Thursday night as the best night to roll out a new package.
ESPN and the NFL have agreed to the broad terms of an extension for “Monday Night Football” that would run through 2022-23. The cost there would average out to $1.8 billion per year.

That deal, first reported in January, still hasn’t been signed, but ESPN sources said the delay is because of the NFL labor situation, not because of haggling over deal terms.

The NFL has been making progress in labor talks with the players, and there is hope a final deal could be signed next month.

In 2004, the NFL rejected an offer from Versus that would have paid an average of $450 million per year for an eight-game schedule. The deal also would have given the NFL an equity interest in Comcast’s all-sports channel, then called OLN, sources said.

At the time, the NFL opted to put the package on its own network.

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NFL, CBS, Fox, Versus, ESPN, Spike TV, Football, Media

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