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ABC Seeks to Cut Pay to USFL : Network Is Asking for Steep Reduction in $15-Million Deal

Times Staff Writer

ABC, which at one point agreed to pay the United States Football League $15 million this year for TV rights, is now asking that the amount be reduced considerably.

A league source said ABC is seeking a concession of $7 million.

Jim Spence, ABC vice president in charge of sports, said: “There are stipulations in the contract that entitle us to renegotiate because of the reconfiguration of the league.”

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In other words, when ABC signed with the USFL before the league’s first season in 1983, the structure of the league was different than it is now. There were 18 teams then. Now there are 14.

There were teams in such major TV markets as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Washington. Those teams have since moved, folded or merged with other teams.

ABC’s original contract with the USFL specified that the network would pay a rights fee of $18 million for the first two seasons. Included in that contract was an option for ABC to pick up the 1985 season for $14 million. ABC picked up the option, then threw in another $1 million, which still didn’t come close to satisfying most of the USFL owners. Some had said they needed a TV contract in the neighborhood of $35 million a season to offset their expenditures.

The league’s teams, which lost an average of $3.5 million in 1984, are experiencing even more problems this season. Attendance is off 6.7%, and ABC’s ratings are off 24%. The national rating for ABC’s USFL telecast last Sunday was only a 3.7, and the season average before that was only a 5.5. The average rating at this time last year was 7.0. Sunday NFL games usually get national ratings of 15 or 16.

Spence would not verify the amount of the concession being sought by ABC, nor did he indicate that the decline in TV ratings from last season figured in the renegotiations.

USFL Commissioner Harry Usher said he had no comment on the situation with ABC at this time. “In two weeks, I’ll be able to tell you more,” he said.

At that time, USFL owners are expected to decide whether they will shift from a spring schedule to a fall schedule in 1986. USFL owners voted to move to the fall last August, but since then some owners have said they don’t want to switch. Tampa Bay’s John Bassett said his team will continue to play in the spring no matter what the rest of the league does.

A move to the fall would mean the loss of a TV contract with a major network.

Spence has said all along that if the USFL goes to a fall schedule, ABC will not pick up its option for 1986. NBC and CBS officials have also indicated that they would not be interested in the USFL in the fall.

But Usher continues to push for the switch, saying that fans cannot get used to watching football in the spring.

Usher believes that the league will be able to pick up another contract with a major network for the fall of 1987.

Usher said Friday that a move to the fall would probably involve a reduction in teams from 14 to 12 and the relocation of some of the franchises. But he said a team would remain in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to be in L.A.,” he said. “We’ll certainly be in markets that are necessary to have national exposure.”

The Los Angeles Express is being supported by the league, and there have been rumors that the team will either merge with another USFL team, move or fold.

ESPN, the cable network, will continue to televise USFL games no matter when they are played. ESPN is in the first year of a three-year, $70-million deal with the league. But ESPN’s ratings for USFL games are also declining. There has been close to a 30% drop from last year, although ESPN’s ratings for USFL games are still considerably higher than the league’s average prime-time rating.


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