ESPN and the Arena Football League have entered into an unusual five-year agreement that gives the cable network not only national TV rights to AFL games beginning in March but also a minority stake in the 19-team league.
The deal, announced Tuesday, gives the home of "Monday Night Football" more of the same, albeit the indoor variety.
AFL Commissioner David Baker called it the most comprehensive and longest TV rights deal in the 21-year history of the league. "This isn't dating; this is getting married," he said on a conference call. "They are officially an AFL owner."
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Baker said the two sides have been talking since September and terms were finalized last week.
A source close to the deal said ESPN will own 10% of the league and get football programming without paying a multimillion-dollar rights fee. Another source said ESPN has guaranteed that it will sell at least $2.5 million in advertising, and so has the league.
The league also will pick up production costs, estimated at about $3.5 million, and split advertising revenue with ESPN after those costs are absorbed.
NBC, which televised the AFL the last four years as part of a revenue-sharing deal, got 10% of any profits the league earned but did not own any equity.
While the AFL has not been covered much by ESPN, not even on its all-encompassing "SportsCenter," John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president, scoffed at the notion that the network's part ownership would change its news judgment.
Calling the AFL deal a possible model for the future, Skipper said there is a "certain separation" between ESPN's news programs and the business side.
Baker -- saying that ESPN, as a minority owner, will have the right to information on the business of the league but would not have a vote on league matters -- stressed that separation.
"They can't vote, and they won't let me produce the 'SportsCenter' shows," he said.
The AFL season starts on March 1, six weeks later than last year, and ABC will televise two games regionally on Sunday, March 4. After that, ESPN2 will televise regular-season games, mostly on Monday nights.
ABC and ESPN are owned by Walt Disney Co.
ESPN2's first Monday night game March 12 has the Avengers playing at Orlando. The Avengers are scheduled for two other regular-season appearances on ESPN2 -- Sunday, April 1, at Chicago and Monday, June 11, at Arizona.
ESPN and ESPN2 will televise playoff games, and the league championship game, called the ArenaBowl, which will be played this year in New Orleans on July 29, will be televised on ABC.
In all, 26 games -- nine postseason -- will be televised by ESPN/ABC.
Baker said ESPN would give the AFL needed exposure with the network's 15 platforms, including ESPN.com, Spanish-language ESPN Deportes and ESPN Radio. Growing viewership is critical to the league's long-term success.
Last season, more than 65 million viewers tuned in to watch AFL games, the league said. But NBC's ratings steadily declined: AFL telecasts averaged a 1.1 rating in 2003 and a 0.8 this year.
An NBC spokesman said his network had exclusive renewal rights but that both parties mutually agreed to part ways.
In addition to the ESPN deal, FSN is expected to renew a contract that would include local Avengers telecasts. FSN has carried the Avengers all seven years of their existence.
Meanwhile, the league is talking to networks about a Friday night package of games, including NFL Network.