- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

There isn't much small about John Madden. The voice is booming. The appetite is legendary. The level of commercial exposure is massive.
So, last week, when the popular football analyst moved from Fox Sports to ABC's "Monday Night Football," he similarly left behind a large wake in the TV sports industry.
Fox, which owes its very existence as a major national network to Madden and NFL football, is now scrambling to piece together new lineups of game announcers and craft a new overall identity. With nearly $400 million in losses from airing NFL games already on the books, Fox's ability to spend during the retooling will be significantly hampered.
ABC, which will pay Madden $20million over four years, is in desperate times, too. Ratings for "MNF" have dropped in each of the last seven years and buzz for the program is nearly nonexistent. That helps explain why the network quite willingly ate the remaining contracts for Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller and Eric Dickerson in order to get the star power of Madden.
Even CBS, which claims to make money on the NFL and played no role in the Madden move, is not entirely on solid ground. Its pregame show continues to get trounced by Fox and, with the competing networks reshuffling, CBS also did a little housecleaning last week. Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason joined the pre-game show, replacing widely disliked Jerry Glanville.
So how did this all happen? Since when was televising the NFL, still by far America's favorite spectator sport, a tenuous enterprise?
In short, the recession happened, and cable and satellite TV continued its exponential growth. Corporations are finding the NFL on broadcast TV is only one of many options to reach coveted young, male viewers. It's also one of the most expensive options. Cable networks, buttressed by fast-rising subscriber fees, remain better prepared to ride out the economic slowdown.
As a result, revenues did not meet expectations after the broadcast networks made a $17.6 billion, seven-year commitment to the NFL in 1998. Once the losses became clear, the talent shuffling and paring down on production elements began. The NBA's shift to become largely a cable TV sport followed the same trend.
"TV sports is extremely healthy in terms of viewership, expecially relative to other types of programming," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said last month. "But at some point, a bean counter is going to say 'at what cost?'"
So with Madden on "MNF" and the economic landscape fully in flux, look for some big changes with the NFL on TV in the coming months and years.
For nearly four years, the league has struggled with a way to create a flexible schedule to allow the best games to reach national audiences each week and at the same time not harm any network or stadium operator in the process. There has been no firm answer, but the NFL and its broadcast committee have made the issue a priority. It will address it at the league's annual meeting later this month and some kind of test program seems probable for the 2002 or 2003 season.
"It's something we're definitely working on and something we'd definitely like to figure out," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "The question is how to keep everyone happy."
The other likely big change seems to be a wider rollout of the popular NFL Sunday Ticket package, which gives viewers all the 1 and 4 p.m. games. Currently only on DirecTV, the NFL's contract with the satellite service expires after this coming season. With the league staring at the likelihood of increased broadcast revenues in its next TV contract, and more fans than ever rooting for teams outside their home markets, putting the Sunday Ticket in more homes looks like a no-brainer.
Such a move could place two long-cherished NFL principles its local TV blackout policy and commitment to airing games on free television under more pressure. But industry analysts say, if done right, those values and Sunday Ticket can successfully coexist for years to come.
"The NFL's next TV contract without question is going to incorporate some creative thinking, some different thinking," said sports consultant Marc Ganis, who frequently works with the league. "We essentially saw this before in 1993. Back then as well, the networks were having trouble, [Dallas owner] Jerry Jones and a group of other aggressive owners fought a prevailing sentiment to give the networks rebates. They went after Fox, who came in and instead raised [rights fees] dramatically, and in turn did a lot to change the fan demographics and raise the profile of the league.
"There will be more out-of-the-box thinking like that, and Sunday Ticket represents a real avenue of growth that can be further exploited," Ganis said.

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