NFL calls audible to beef up ‘MNF’

CBS, Fox line up blocks

NEW YORK — The National Football League is trying to engineer a late-season overhaul that would beef up the lineup of ABC’s “Monday Night Football”– but execs at CBS and Fox may make ABC pay through the nose for the right.

At their Orlando, Fla., meeting, the NFL owners are putting the finishing touches on a plan that would play musical chairs with some Sunday and Monday games in the last four weeks of the season. As outlined by the league, the NFL would potentially shift a Sunday game featuring playoff-contending teams to Monday night and the scheduled “MNF” game would be moved to Sunday. CBS or Fox would get the originally scheduled Monday nighter. Contests featuring an AFC team as the visitor would go to CBS; Fox would get games with the NFC team as the visitor.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he’s pushing for the scheme, which has been discussed in years past and built a real head of steam last season. “If Tagliabue is able to bring it off and get the networks to work together, we’d certainly wind up with a more vibrant schedule,” said David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.

One industry insider familiar with the talks, however, said the NFL is being overly optimistic about pushing through such a plan. “There’s no way this goes through as is,” the insider said. “CBS and Fox won’t let this happen unless there are major concessions from the NFL to the other networks.”

Indeed, Carter said the negotiations may drag out because “the parties are trying to make major changes right in the middle of the contract. These are the kinds of negotiations that usually go on when a professional sports league and the networks are in talks for a new contract.”

Another tricky aspect to the blueprint is convincing CBS and Fox “to allow good games to be cherry-picked off their Sunday schedule toward the end of the season and given to ABC to pump up its Monday-night ratings,” said Carter.

“It’s fine to boast about the strength of ‘Monday Night Football’ to the overall health of the league,” he continued. “But would the shareholders of CBS and Fox want to see Disney’s ABC prosper at their expense?”

Carter said ABC may have to agree to share with CBS or Fox some of the advertising revenue of an “MNF’ game that’s rescheduled in the last four weeks because of its impact on the teams still in contention for post-season berths. Fox and CBS alternate airing doubleheaders during the season, and whichever network is airing a late afternoon national contest stands to benefit in primetime due to the carryover of the football audience. ABC’s sister cabler ESPN carries primetime Sunday games.

The NFL may have to argue that while “MNF” is an important promotional vehicle for the network’s primetime entertainment series that would give ABC the benefit of a bigger Nielsen rating, nevertheless, the four games that would be switched will be played in December after the November sweep has ended.

League sources said the NFL will release its 2002 broadcast schedule of national games before the month is out.

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