NEW YORK — The Arena Football League, which is beginning its 14th year, has scored its best TV deal yet, signing a contract with TNN that will give the league its first regular weekly primetime exposure.
Beginning in April, TNN, in its first deal ever with the AFL, will begin cablecasting a live slate of Thursday-night games throughout the 14-week regular season.
For the post-season, TNN, ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will share the coverage of the 11 playoff games. ABC will telecast the Arena Bowl championship game on Aug. 20. ABC also covered the last two Arena Bowls, picking up a 1.5 Nielsen rating for last year’s victory of the Albany, N.Y., Firebirds over the defending champion Orlando, Fla., Predators. For the Arena Bowl the year before, ABC averaged a 1.6 rating.
Insiders say the new TV deal will end up funneling about $25 million to the AFL over the next three years. Other sources said TNN, which is owned by CBS, has promised the AFL that it will engineer a massive marketing campaign across all CBS platforms, including the cable network Country Music TV, the 16 owned-and-operated TV stations, 160 owned radio stations and 120,000 billboards.
TNN will sell the ad time not only on its own network’s AFL games, but also on the ESPN and ABC telecasts. The AFL will in effect be buying the timeslots for the games on ESPN and ABC. When advertising revenues reach a specific, undisclosed amount, TNN and the AFL will share in the ad dollars above that total.
ESPN was the main TV partner of the AFL for 11 of the past 13 seasons, with local coverage running exclusively for the two non-ESPN years.
TNN has signed a three-year deal, with two additional one-year options, said David Baker, commissioner of the AFL. The ESPN/ABC deal is for one year, with a one-year renewal option, he added.
Although in February the National Football League bought an exclusive option to buy up to 49.9% of the AFL at some point within the next two years, Mark Hamister, chairman of the AFL’s TV and marketing committee, said the NFL did not get involved in the negotiations with either TNN or ESPN/ABC.
In addition to Albany and Orlando, the AFL competes in 15 markets: Buffalo, N.Y.; Des Moines, Iowa.; East Rutherford, N.J.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Hartford, Conn.; Houston; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; Nashville, Tenn.; Oklahoma City; Phoenix; Plantation, Fla.; Raleigh, N.C.; San Jose; and Tampa, Fla. The AFL will announce an 18th team next week, and expansion teams in Chicago and New Orleans will kick off in 2001.