But don't count out AT&T Corp., MCI Communications Corp. or incumbent GTE Communications just yet.
NFL Properties will be presenting the best deal and possible alternatives to owners this week; an agreement won't be finalized and announced until the end of the month.
$29 MILLION A YEAR
The contenders and NFL Properties wouldn't comment on the negotiations, but Sprint's offer is said to include an unprecedented rights fee of $29 million a year, which would cover long distance, cellular and the many other niches of the telco industry.
A portion of that money would be directed to individual teams for local marketing.
Sprint would leverage its sponsorship with up to $70 million a year in national promotions and advertising.
Said a sports marketing executive familiar with negotiations: "Sprint wants to focus its year-round marketing on the NFL, the pin drop and [spokeswoman] Candice Bergen."
Sprint may have an added "in" with the NFL-its sports marketing agency, Clarion Performance Properties, Greenwich, Conn., also handles NFL Properties.
But NFL Properties has met recently with executives from incumbent GTE to discuss a counteroffer. Also, AT&T's offer has been getting more serious consideration in recent weeks, given the company's recent investment in DirecTV, the NFL's direct broadcast satellite rights-holder.
The scramble to be the NFL's official telco marketer is being fueled by the cutthroat competition in that industry. The value of the deal also underscores the NFL's prominence as a national media and promotional platform, and is a result of the NFL's centralized marketing philosophy, unique among pro sports leagues.
Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association allow their clubs to sign local deals in all categories, and include in those sponsorship pacts ad support for the teams' local TV and radio partners. The NFL, with its network telecasts, doesn't have to worry about local broadcasters.
NFL UNDER FIRE
But the NFL's centralized approach has come under fire in the past year, with the league suing Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for $300 million for deals that ambush NFL sponsors; Mr. Jones is countersuing the league for $750 million and the ability to control his team's marketing.
The spat has reached the telco negotiations, with Mr. Jones unsuccessfully trying to lobby owners against a new deal. He had argued that many teams may get more money from their own deals than a share of a 30-way split.
Team owners have told NFL Properties that unless it can get more than $24 million for the deal, the category will go back to the clubs. That could mark the start of a move to set minimum-level rights fees in key categories, in an effort to meet the growing revenue concerns of many clubs.