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Hail Mary.

That's what some sideline spectators initially thought of Rupert Murdoch's NFL pass.

They saw the $1.6 billion bid to acquire four years of National Football Conference coverage as an act of desperation, necessitated by two seasons of declining prime-time ratings and a lack of overall momentum at Fox.

But with less than two months before Fox Sports kicks off its first NFL season, Mr. Murdoch's pricey gamble looks more like a touchdown drive that will take his burgeoning media enterprise past the U.S. end zone and into a playing field of global proportions.

"I think football will be a key element in the globalization of Murdoch's media holdings," said Arnie Semsky, exec VP-worldwide media director at BBDO Worldwide, New York.

In 1986, BBDO negotiated what was billed as the first-ever global media buy for client Gillette Co., a package including the fledgling Fox network in the U.S., British Sky Broadcasting in Europe and Murdoch's network in Australia.

"It worked very well for us," Mr. Semsky said. "One of the main reasons we did it was to show that it could be done and to foreshadow the things that would come-global media, global advertising and global advertising agencies."

NFL President Neal Austrian said the league commands more than $1 billion a year in rights fees in the U.S. but only about $10 million from other countries.

"The deal with Fox was just for domestic rights," Mr. Austrian said, "but clearly by partnering with Rupert, we see an opportunity to grow the NFL in the international marketplace because of the reach and prominence of his global media resources."

Earlier this year, Fox became an equity partner in the NFL's relaunch of the World League. Fox's 49% stake is unprecedented. No U.S. media outlet has ever owned as significant a stake in a professional sports league.

Fox executives last week were believed to be negotiating details with the NFL on international distribution rights for the World League.

It's assumed Mr. Murdoch's TV outlets in the U.K., Asia and Latin America will be given first choice of carrying the games.

"We certainly see great [NFL] opportunities in Europe, and we'll start there first," Mr. Murdoch said in an interview. "But I think it's going to take a long time to get the NFL as a major sport in every country in the world in the way that soccer already is."

Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Television, the TV syndication arm of Fox Inc., has cut a deal with NFL Films to be its marketing and distribution partner.

In a very little time, News Corp. and the NFL have become closer perhaps than any media company has ever bonded to a sports league.

Whether the partnership comes at the expense of the NFL's other global media partners-Capital Cities/ABC's ABC plus ESPN, NBC and Turner Broadcasting System-remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Mr. Murdoch's NFL bid was no act of desperation but part of a expansionistic global game plan.

The top media executive at a major multinational football advertiser said the NFL tried, but failed, before to expand internationally.

"This time, they are doing it with a media partner that brings not only credibility but strong existing outlets throughout the world," the executive said.

George Krieger, exec VP at Fox Sports and one of Mr. Murdoch's key NFL strategists, said News Corp. wants to market football as "a year-round sport." Fox's $395 million annual NFL payment exceeds comparable investments in its entire prime-time schedule.

Whether that makes sense depends on whom you ask.

"[CBS Inc. Chairman-CEO]

Larry Tisch does something like that, and everybody said he was a jerk. Rupert does it, and everybody says he's a genius," said PaineWebber analyst Alan Gottesman.

Fox will lose money, but the deal has already paid off in other ways. Since acquiring NFL rights, Fox has picked up enough affiliates to increase coverage to about 96% of U.S. TV homes from about 93%. News Corp.'s recent deal with New World Communications Group boosts that coverage even higher.

The NFL is projected to double Fox's supply of gross rating points during the critical fourth quarter. Fox executives project football will average the 13.8 rating that CBS' regular-season coverage averaged last year, nearly twice Fox's 7.3 prime-time rating and a powerful advertiser lure.

At nearly $120,000 per 30-second spot, Fox is expected to gross nearly $250 million annually from football, not including about $25 million in NFL-related programming and revenue to Fox-owned stations. Fox will also derive as much as $75 million from the sale of ad time in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, further cutting losses.

During the 1994-95 upfront football season, Fox cut deals with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp., American Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Sales USA, as well as major beer marketers.

Under a four-year, $40 million deal with McDonald's Corp. announced last week, the two will team for a major, fourth-quarter integrated marketing effort.

The cross-promotion deal will use a watch-and-win game that will give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes, intended to drive tune-in to the NFL on Fox. McDonald's will back the effort with an ad campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and will feature the promotion in its 9,400 U.S. restaurants.

Fox also has its own promotional and ad blitz planned.

"We are going to make sure all the viewers who were used to watching the NFL on CBS know that almost half the NFL schedule is now on Fox," said Tony Seiniger, president of Seiniger Advertising, Beverly Hills, Calif., named last week as Fox's agency for all creative work on the NFL.

Mr. Seiniger, whose agency has worked primarily for movie companies, said Fox will take an unconventional approach.

"We are going to find ways of taking the helmets off of the players and showing that there are living, breathing personalities under there. We want to develop the personalities behind the sport, the way the NBA did with basketball," he said. "[CBS] sold it like it was a videogame. It didn't have any personality."

Still, convention has its place, even at Fox. The network was quick to hire veteran CBS analysts John Madden and Terry Bradshaw, and also put former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson on its roster.

Fox Sports isn't stopping with football. Executives are already waging a clandestine campaign to shake baseball rights away from the Baseball Network, a fledgling partnership of ABC, NBC and Major League Baseball. Though the joint venture is a six-year deal, it's believed team owners have options to cancel if the venture doesn't deliver on certain revenue goals.

But Fox Sports isn't pinning all its hopes on baseball. The network expects to play in every major sports that comes up, even basketball, when the NBA's contract with NBC comes due. The jewel Fox Sports is angling toward is the 2000 Summer Olympics in Mr. Murdoch's native Sydney.

Scott Donaton and Jeff Jensen contributed to this story.

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