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Game plan may be to spread the football around

Leave it to the NFL to turn a perceived weakness into a strength.

The league has only 256 regular-season games spread over its 17-week regular season. In TV sports terms, that's a small "inventory." It's also a call for creative packaging and a something-for-everyone approach when negotiating its TV deals.

Even though the present agreements don't expire until after the 2005 season, expect the NFL to have its TV future mapped out before this fall's games begin. That would be a reflection of the Kraft family influence on league matters. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a key member of the NFL's broadcast committee, which appeared to max out the revenue potential in the last round of dealings -- until it took an innovative approach to negotiations.

Kraft believes in always having a long-term business plan in place, and he has a lot of experience in big-time business deals. It's not every NFL owner who grew up around the corner from Viacom's Sumner Redstone or is on a first-name basis with Rupert Murdoch and is sought out as a dinner companion at the Super Bowl by Fox sports heads David Hill and Ed Goren.

"Mr. Kraft has had an enormous impact on our television contracts," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "He helps with the strategizing and conducts negotiations.

"When it's time to make the deal, the three NFL people in the room are commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, chairman of the committee, and Mr. Kraft."

So far, CBS and Fox have signed six-year extensions (for a total of $8 billion) that will keep them carrying games through 2011. And DirecTV is paying $3.5 billion to keep its exclusive "Season Ticket" package through 2010.

Still on the table are the prime-time packages (Sunday and Monday nights) plus a new Thursday-Saturday night package to air over the last eight weeks of the season. The three (or four) deals could go to any number of existing networks (ABC, ESPN), a startup (Fox, Comcast, NFL Network) or be split between carriers that could be cable or broadcast. Networks that aren't NFL partners in the current deals (NBC, Turner) aren't ruling out a return.

Tagliabue brought up the subject in Jacksonville, Fla., in his annual "State of the NFL" address.

"The discussions with ESPN, ABC, and parent Disney will probably be complicated because we're looking at it from a strategic perspective," he said. "We are giving very serious consideration to being part of the launch of another major sports network on cable and satellite television. That's a complicated thing, which anticipates the future of television technology and the future interests of where people are going to be in terms of digital television technology."

Translation: Hurry up, ABC and ESPN. We want to get this deal done because we have something else big in the works.

Tagliabue is a master at keeping many potential buyers at the table, knowing someone eventually will swallow hard and meet the asking price. The key decision seems to be at ABC, which has to decide whether it's worth continuing to lose money to keep the "Monday Night Football" franchise as a ratings winner for 18 weeks a year.

There has been much speculation about ESPN taking the Monday package and ABC moving to Sunday or dropping pro football entirely.

ESPN, which also is negotiating with Major League Baseball, can't walk away from the NFL easily because a good part of its carriage fees come from having the NFL or at least three of the four major sports. Having a baseball deal in place could make it easier to deal with the NFL.

Where ABC and ESPN have something to lose, others have plenty to gain. Take the potential buyers of the Thursday-Saturday package.

"Do the math," an industry insider said. "If a startup or digital channel such as Viacom's Spike buys a Thursday or Saturday package, say, for $400 million per year, they go from being a 30-cents-a-month channel to, say, 70 cents a month. Multiply that times 80 million homes ($56 million) times 12 months ($672 million). Those are pretty powerful numbers."

The industry feeling is that once the first deal is cut, the rest of the dots could be connected fairly quickly.

Tagliabue's statement at the Super Bowl renewed speculation that Murdoch and Fox might be dusting off plans for a new all-sports network, perhaps in collaboration with the NFL or NFL Network. But Comcast could be part of that planning, too.

Landmark moment
The NFL version of the Super Bowl DVD goes on sale Tuesday, with a Midnight Madness party tomorrow at the Landmark Center Best Buy. Patriot Rodney Harrison will be on hand for autographs . . . ESPNU, a network devoted to college sports, will launch to approximately 3 million homes on DirecTV and Adelphia systems Thursday at 7 p.m. Mike Hall, the 23-year-old winner of ESPN's original "Dream Job," will be the station's signature face and studio host . . . "Four birdies and a 35 on the back nine today in Naples, Fla.," was Bob Neumeier's response last Wednesday to the question: "How's life after WEEI?" Neumeier says he's received some potential job offers that he'll investigate after a vacation that will take him to Vail, Bermuda, and Italy.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com

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