CBS Gets the NFL Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First NBC lost "Seinfeld." Now it has been sacked again.

CBS, which lost the NFL to Fox four years ago, wrested it away from NBC on Monday.

According to sources, CBS will begin carrying the AFC package next season as part of a new television contract that could generate nearly $15 billion over the next eight years.

All the pieces won't be in place for a few days, but the new contract, when all is said and done, could generate $1.87 billion per year in rights fees for the NFL. That breaks down to more than $60 million a team.

Fox also made a new deal with the NFL on Monday, agreeing to continue to carry the NFC at a price of $550 million a year, a 39% increase over the $395 million it was paying.

CBS agreed to pay $500 million a year for the AFC package over eight years after NBC balked at that price. NBC was paying $217 million a year for the AFC package, which it has had since the the merger of the NFL and the old American Football League in 1970.

Before that, NBC began televising the AFL when it was formed in 1960.

The only way NBC can continue to carry NFL games is if it outbids ABC for the prized "Monday Night Football" package. But that is unlikely because ABC, as the current rights holder of that package, has the right to match any NBC offer.

"The price of the Monday night package just went up," said one television executive.

ABC has been paying $230 million a year for Monday nights. That price could double, but ABC is expected to accept the increase.

NBC, which not only is losing "Seinfeld" but also is facing the threat of "ER" going elsewhere, may view "Monday Night Football" as an appealing acquisition.

"We're still negotiating with the NFL, so we can't comment at this time," an NBC spokesman said.

But there's the issue of just how deep NBC's pockets are. Two years ago, NBC agreed to pay $4 billion to wrap up Summer and Winter Olympic rights through 2008. And last November, NBC agreed to a four-year, $1.75-billion contract with the NBA.

In the past, NFL television contracts have been four years in duration. But the NFL is offering eight years this time in order to generate more revenue. However, the final three years of the new deal will be option years, but only the NFL's option. That gives the NFL, after five years, the right to seek even more money.

From a football standpoint, the new contract will result in an increase in the salary cap, figuring to be about $10 million a team.

The other aspects of the NFL's new television contract will be determined the next couple of days. Besides the Monday night package, still unsettled is the price of the Sunday night cable package shared by TNT and ESPN. One network televises the first half of the season, then the other takes over.

ESPN has been paying $131 million a year and TNT $124 million. Both are expected to re-up.

The total value of the current four-year NFL TV contract is $4.4 billion, or $1.1 billion a year.

As part of Fox's deal, the network will get three Super Bowls, including two in the first five years starting with the game on Jan. 31, 1999, in Miami.

CBS will get one Super Bowl during the first five years, and presumably will have a second over the next three.

That leaves three Super Bowls--but only one during the first five years--for whichever network ends up with the Monday night package.

Although NBC's contracts for the Olympics and the NBA were mind-boggling at the time, they pale in comparison to the new NFL contract.

"With ratings eroding, you have to have blue-ribbon sports franchises because they can assure a big audience, big advertising price and big revenue," Ron Frederick, a media buyer at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, told the Associated Press. "But it is not a lead-pipe cinch that everybody will kill themselves to get the NFL."

Because of the high price tag, the networks aren't expected to make a profit off NFL football. But the NFL is still the best way for advertisers to target young males--and the league, networks and advertisers all know it.

This will be the 10th contract awarded by the NFL since 1962, when the league and CBS agreed on a two-year regular-season deal for $4.65 million, about the price of four 30-second commercials during the Super Bowl.

The total value of the new deal is expected to be more than the $14.89 billion in television rights the league has made over the past 36 years.

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