- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

Sports Biz

Another NFL season is upon us, and this year, the competition in the TV booths and studios is as feisty as that on the field.

Each of the leagues TV partners made some significant retooling of its talent, but even more, turned up the promotional octane against each other. The end result for the fan should be not only heightened coverage of the league, but a relentless push to try to prevent viewers from switching channels.

The most prominent move among the networks, of course, was John Maddens move from Fox to "Monday Night Football" on ABC, creating a partnership with Al Michaels that already ranks as one of the best in series history. Fox then needed to create a new No. 1 announcing team, and did so with Joe Buck, Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman. CBS, already solid in its game-announcing teams, retooled its pre-game show again to forge a new lineup with Jim Nantz, Deion Sanders, Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino.

On the cable side, Fox reorganized there, too, creating "The NFL Show" with newcomers Tony Siragusa and Michael Irvin to replace the irreverent "NFL This Morning." "The NFL Show" will air Saturday nights and replay on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m. ESPN added Bill Parcells to its "NFL Sunday Countdown" pre-game show.

Like the 32 NFL teams, Fox, ABC, ESPN and CBS are all starting with blank slates. But Fox feels very confident it can retain the overall lead in national ratings it snatched from ABC last year.

ABC thinks its seven-year streak of declining "MNF" ratings is over. ESPN knows it has a stronghold on the fantasy football crowd and those foremost interested in detailed Xs and Os. And CBS feels it finally has a pre-game lineup worthy of challenging Foxs long-held dominance in that 12-1 p.m. hour.

"We will challenge the guys on the West Coast (Fox) as theyve never been challenged before," said CBS Sports president Sean McManus. "Our guys will light up the screen. This show is going to be very special."

Fox executives quickly fired back: "We wish [CBS] well. We hope the fifth time is the charm for them," said Fox NFL Sunday coordinating producer Scott Ackerson, referring to CBS frequent line-up changes that included disastrous experiments with Mike Ditka, Jerry Glanville and Randy Cross.

With Collinsworth now in the booth, Foxs pre-game show will drop to a three-man team with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and James Brown returning. Jimmy Johnson, an original Fox pre-game analyst, appears today as the first of several planned guests this season.

The other primary avenue of network mudslinging comes from the evergreen discussion of a flexible schedule. The idea of moving key late season-games from Sunday afternoon to Monday night to give them a prime-time showcase has kicked around NFL offices for years. But a formula thats not unfair to CBS and Fox has not materialized, and the concept remains on the shelf.

That, however, has not stopped Madden from beating the flexible schedule pulpit at nearly every available opportunity. Since he signed his ABC contract in March, hes talked about it at every opportunity. He even suggested withholding the release of the final four weeks of the schedule until midseason to better ensure "MNF" would receive the key December games.

"Were going to have to move around [games] and get to a flex schedule," Madden said. "Were going to have some duds [on the schedule] somewhere."

CBS and Fox remain firmly opposed.

"I have said for some time I will fight this with every fiber of my being. That really hasnt changed," said Fox Sports chairman David Hill. "This is something we never saw from John all these years. I guess Disney [ABCs corporate parent] has brainwashed him."

Said McManus, "All the NFL has to do is come up with a flexible schedule that is beneficial to CBS and Fox as well as ["MNF"]. But we have an eight-year deal. ABC went into the deal knowing exactly what the format was going to be. Those are the breaks of the game. Were trying to maximize every single ratings point we can. It makes no business sense for us or Fox."

Hill said even with the opposition to a flexible schedule in place, a hypothetical program is quietly being conducted this year among the networks and NFL to further study the issue. The details of the program remain private, but it will center in part on examining the full logistical ramifications of switching dates on just a few weeks notice.

Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, one of the leagues elder statesmen and member of the NFLs broadcast committee, predicts the flexible schedule will not see the light of day.

"You simply cannot help Monday by emasculating Sunday," Modell said. "But more than that, you have to think of the fans. You switch dates on the fly and you risk inconveniencing the ticket buyer, the fan who is directly supporting you. I dont think you can do that."

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