Tagliabue sees big score ahead for NFL TV rights

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Paul Tagliabue is predicting a big football victory.

No, the National Football League commissioner isn't forecasting the winner in this weekend's Super Bowl game between the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots. Instead, Mr. Tagliabue, in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Advertising Age, said the NFL will score a healthy revenue increase in the coming negotiations over TV rights.

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Talks begin this summer on a new deal. The current package, expiring after the 1997-98 season, has brought in $4.3 billion over the last four years from telecasters ABC, ESPN, Fox, NBC and TNT.


"Based on our current ad revenues . . . and strength of the programming, I would anticipate I would get very substantial increases in revenues in the next round of contracts," Mr. Tagliabue said. He wouldn't say how high the bidding could go, but at least one NFL owner--Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders--has boldly predicted rights fees will double for the next package.

As part of the new package, the NFL was considering selling a Sunday night prime-time deal to a broadcast network, but Mr. Tagliabue now says that would be "very unlikely."

The league will, though, ask its TV partners for more prime-time inventory so it can extend the reach of its ad campaigns beyond game broadcasts, where it is preaching to the converted.

More media weight will be given to the youth-oriented, grass-roots "Play Football" program and to the "Feel the Power" image effort. The "Pledge Allegiance" campaign, designed to spur merchandise sales, will be discontinued. All are handled in-house.


The league also wants to see more "shoulder programming" on networks that telecast NFL games, specifically shows that promote football to young viewers.

In addition to discussing TV rights and sponsors, Mr. Tagliabue also revealed how the NFL defused its feud with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones over the league's centralized marketing approach and revenue sharing structure.

Under that structure, all NFL teams split revenues evenly, regardless of market size or performance. But Mr. Jones had attempted to market his prized Cowboys on his own to reap the rewards of the team's popularity, a plan that prompted a lawsuit from the league and a countersuit from the outspoken owner.

Mr. Tagliabue said a series of lengthy conversations with Mr. Jones and several owners produced the recent truce.

"Jerry and I spoke at length about the advantage of focusing on these marketing sponsorship and licensing issues as business issues instead of lawsuit issues," he said. The lawsuits were dropped.

At the NFL's team meetings last fall, team and league executives engaged in a dialogue that set the stage for an evolution of the NFL's sponsorship philosophy. They endorsed a centralized approach, but one that takes into greater account the financial needs of each team.


The league's $30 million-a-year deal with Sprint Corp., with its minimum rights fee and requirements to spend marketing dollars with local teams and broadcasters, is an example of the kind of deals NFL Properties is now pursuing.

Said Mr. Tagliabue, "NFL Properties is now looking hard at each sponsorship category and getting club views in advance in how to evaluate those categories, in terms of exclusivity, modified exclusivity and no exclusivity."

And what of Super Bowl XXXI?

Mr. Tagliabue dismissed warnings from some media buyers that the smaller-market competitors will cost the game some 10% of last year's record 138.9 million viewers.

"We've seen in the past," the commissioner said, "that the intensity of interest in the game depends more on quality of game, interest in players and teams, than market share or size."

Copyright January 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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