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Sports Weekend | TV-RADIO LARRY STEWART

Wiser NBC Tackles Football

January 31, 2003|LARRY STEWART

Two years ago, NBC, in partnership with Vince McMahon, embarked on what turned out to be the biggest fiasco in sports television history. The XFL bomb cost each partner around $50 million.

Now NBC is embarking on another minor league football partnership. But, network executives insist, it's a whole new ballgame.

NBC, desperate for sports programming other than snowboarding and bull riding, this weekend begins televising the 17-year-old Arena Football League.

NBC is counting on the American public never getting its fill of Sunday afternoon football, even if it is indoor football.

Also, NBC this time guarded against financial disaster.

Its contract with the AFL is like none other in television history. It's a revenue-sharing deal in which NBC risks nothing. And if the network exposure makes the league more profitable, NBC will share in those profits.

One of the architects of the deal was New York television consultant Neal Pilson, who has the AFL as a client. When NBC lost the NBA to ABC and ESPN in late 2001, Pilson called NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol and said, "I've got just the thing for you."

This wasn't a wrestling promoter on the other end of the phone line. This was the former president of CBS Sports and one of the most respected people in sports television.

Also, AFL owners are respected businessmen. Nine NFL owners are involved in the league. Jerry Jones owns the Dallas Desperados. Pat Bowlen, John Elway and billionaire Stan Kroenke own the new Colorado Crush. The Los Angeles Avengers are owned by Casey Wasserman.

NBC, if nothing else, had learned from its XFL experience. For the AFL, it wouldn't over-promote -- no wrecking balls, no promises of mayhem and no naked cheerleaders in the showers. It wouldn't televise games on Saturday nights. It would set reachable goals, such as a 2 rating. And it would seek guarantees against financial liability and any future bidding wars for the property.

The way the NBC-AFL contract is set up, NBC gets the first $10 million in advertising revenue for production costs, and then the league gets the next $3 million outright. After that, advertising revenue is split 50-50.

Also, if any existing franchise or expansion franchise is sold for more than $12 million, NBC will get a percentage of that. And the contract can be perpetually renewed by NBC -- there will be no outside bidders -- initially after two years, then every four years after that. The option to renew is under the same terms and conditions as the original deal.

Ken Schanzer, NBC Sports president who works alongside Ebersol, said, "When we began this project almost a year ago, we knew that we were trying to do something unique and different in sports.

"The deal is predicated on one thing, and that was a product that everybody at NBC Sports is enthusiastic about broadcasting.

"We're building a new sports property in American television. We intend to be patient as that product builds."

The Announcers

There will be no Jesse Ventura-types on AFL telecasts. The main announcing team will be NBC's respected Notre Dame announcers, Tom Hammond and Pat Haden.

Studio analysts joining host Al Trautwig will be former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin and former NFL lineman Glenn Parker, who went to four Super Bowls with Buffalo and one with the New York Giants. Parker played at Edison High in Huntington Beach before going to Arizona.

The Arena Football League opens play tonight with the Carolina Cobras at the Tampa Bay Storm, but NBC doesn't get into the act until Sunday at noon, when it will televise four games regionally.

The West Coast gets the San Jose Sabercats at the Arizona Rattlers, with Mike Breen and Ray Bentley announcing. The main game with Hammond and Haden is the New York Dragons at Dallas.

The 4-year-old Avengers open their season against the Las Vegas Gladiators, formerly the New Jersey Gladiators, at Staples Center on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. That game will be televised locally by Fox Sports Net 2, with Bill Macdonald and Artie Gigantino as the announcers.

The Avengers' second game, at home against San Jose on Feb. 9, will be televised by NBC at noon. All Avenger games this season will be broadcast on XTRA (690 and 1150). The announcers are Larry Kahn and ABC college football commentator Ed Cunningham.

Short Waves

The Southern California Sports Broadcasters will hold their annual awards luncheon Monday at Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake. Besides awards to local broadcasters, special awards will be presented to longtime sportscaster Mike Walden, former KMPC executive Stan Spero, tennis' Jack Kramer as well as Mike Sciosica, Ann Meyers Drysdale and former boxing promoter Don Fraser.

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