Big plays put NFL net in spotlight

Net drafts Gumbel, Collinsworth

In a bid to become the first powerhouse net to spring from a sports league, the NFL Network is pulling out all the stops.

On Wednesday the cabler announced the hiring of veteran analyst Cris Collinsworth and pulled former “Today” host Bryant Gumbel out of semi-retirement to call games, with Gumbel handling play-by-play and Collinsworth doing color.

“I was happy to sit on the sidelines,” Gumbel told reporters in a conference call, until NFL Network prexy-CEO Steve Bornstein contacted him.

News follows announcement earlier this week that network has acquired the Senior Bowl, a college all-star game.

Net also will air exhibition games and provide extensive coverage of the NFL draft this weekend, challenging longtime stalwart ESPN in what is expected to be a drama-filled draft.

Net is intent on becoming a major player to rival cable and broadcast nets for football programming. Already this off-season it has outbid Comcast’s OLN for rights to eight late-season games with an 11th-hour offer, and on Wednesday night, it held a glitzy upfront in Gotham to charm media that had come to town for the NFL draft.

Even though Gumbel has never called play-by-play for NFL games, his hiring was perceived as a coup given both his name recognition and sports chops honed on HBO skein “Real Sports.”

The tapping of Collinsworth also was designed to impress. Broadcaster will keep his job as a studio analyst for NBC’s new Sunday night package and as a talking-head on HBO series “Inside the NFL.” He may, however, have to skip a few NFL Network games if there’s a scheduling conflict.

News follows the trend of sports teams launching their own networks in an effort to increase revenue. But a range of questions persist about whether the league can support a strong net.

NFL Network still does not have carriage on Time Warner systems, a major thorn in its plans for a national footprint, and some of the splash is meant to persuade cable operators that the net is worth carrying.

“We want to send a strong signal to operators,” Bornstein said, “that we’re here for the long haul.”

Bornstein told reporters he felt confident a deal would be struck before the season starts, although there has been little recent progress of note.