- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When ESPN executives began negotiating for television rights with college football’s Bowl Championship Series, they wanted it all. They asked for the stability of a long-term agreement but also wanted to ensure the network had rights to air content on whatever digital platform it chose.

But how could the executives craft such a deal when the contract wouldn’t be due to expire for more than six years? In a word, creatively.

For years, ESPN and other networks have fought for media rights for Web sites, mobile phones and broadband services, but recent contracts have gone further, nailing down rights for technologies that are still under development or don’t even exist yet.

“They do a great job of setting these contracts up to fuel all of the digital business we’re in - not only the digital business we’re in today like our broadband service or ESPN.com or our variety of mobile services but also technologies that aren’t even contemplated today,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. “We have plenty of rights on both a domestic and international basis to grow our digital media that are in existence today and will be in existence down the road.”

For ESPN, including such language in deals is practically a necessity because of the length of the contracts the network signs and the pace at which technology has advanced. The network last year struck a deal with the NBA for rights that extend through the 2015-16 season and reached a deal earlier this year with the Southeastern Conference that stretches until 2024. Among other agreements, ESPN also has the rights to “Monday Night Football” and Major League Baseball through the 2013 season.

Fox Sports, CBS, NBC and other networks also have similar long deals with the NFL, baseball and NASCAR.

“We try to make it as all-encompassing as possible,” said Bob Thompson, president of Fox Sports National Cable Networks. “We list every technology known to man and even a lot of technologies that are rarely ever even used. And then we add in a line that says something like ‘invented now or in the future.’”

Such forward-looking contract language has allowed Fox Sports, ESPN and other companies to draw tens of millions of users to their Web sites each month for highlights or live games. It also has helped spawn new services, such as the ESPN360.com broadband service and ESPN Mobile TV.

Meanwhile, NBC was permitted to stream thousands of hours of events live from the Beijing Olympics even though the network’s contract with the International Olympic Committee was signed in 1995 - before the Internet was even in widespread use.

But sometimes even the best-worded contract doesn’t cut it, executives said.

“There are certain things you just can’t contemplate, so then you come up with ways to freeze rights where you say, ‘You can’t do anything and we can’t do anything until we agree,’” Thompson said. “That comes up much more now.”

Consider the recent deal to make Sprint the official mobile phone provider of the NFL. The agreement allows for streaming video of all NFL Network games exclusively on Sprint cell phones, but the two sides did not agree on rights to games broadcast on other networks. While Sprint is still the only place to get NFL Network games via cell phone, the company behind new mobile Web browser Skyfire recently announced the browser could stream all of NBC’s Sunday Night Football games on millions of mobile phones - regardless of service provider.

“We’re providing openness … there’s nothing really illegal about what we’re doing,” said Tracy DeMiroz, Skyfire’s vice president of marketing. “It’s technology that’s been available, but you’re getting it on your phone.”

An NFL spokesman declined to comment, except to say NFL Network games are still exclusive to Sprint. A spokesman for Sprint did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Technology has become increasingly harder to predict, but no one is surprised by the growing complexity of media rights deals.

“It’s amazing,” Thompson said. “Twenty years ago, we used to do deals that were four or five pages long. Now they’re 60 pages long. It’s much more complicated than it used to be, just going out on simple cable television.”

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