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Going Where the Action Is

Believing that college football hotbeds can provide players and fans for their franchises, NBC and Time Warner are moving forward with plans to give birth to a new league by the summer of 2000

by Peter King

Posted: Wed August 12, 1998

Sports Illustrated Despite skepticism in the advertising community and the media, NBC and Time Warner are moving confidently toward a June 2000 kickoff for their fledgling pro football league. Architects of the new league, including NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, are considering having 10 to 12 franchises, a 10-week regular season and a championship game around Labor Day, according to sources familiar with discussions. The new league would not challenge the NFL, which traditionally begins regular-season play on Labor Day weekend, or the NBA, whose national-TV rights are owned by NBC and Time Warner's Turner Sports. The new league's sole major league sports competition would be baseball.

In all likelihood the new league won't have NFL-caliber players. Rather than engage in a bidding war with the NFL for stars, it would create regional franchises stocked primarily with former collegians who have a local following and are willing to play for less than $100,000 a season. One candidate city, for instance, would be Birmingham, which fervently supported its United States Football League team in that league's brief run from 1983 to '85. Last spring 28 players from Alabama and Auburn who were eligible for the draft—including Tigers star quarterback Dameyune Craig—weren't selected. Another 53 eligible players from Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Miss were not drafted. No one from NBC or Time Warner (the parent company of Time Inc., the publisher of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) is speaking on the record about the prospective league, but the planners clearly are counting on large regional pools of players, mostly in college football hotbeds, to draw enough fan and TV interest to make the league viable.

Cameras and microphones in the locker rooms and huddles are among other elements that could serve to distinguish the new league from the NFL. Also, to capitalize on NFL fans who are turned off by uncaring millionaire players, the new league may contractually bind its players to interact with fans—by signing autographs and making public appearances, for instance.

As fan-friendly as that sounds, the last thing America needs is a new sports league. So how will the two media giants sell America on summer football? "The big question is, Can NBC and Turner create a league that will keep the 21- to 34-year-old male at home on a weekend night?" says Tony Ponturo, corporate vice president of media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, which buys more than $200 million in commercial time on sports telecasts. "Baseball's getting stronger, and the growth of sports is outdistancing the growth of marketing dollars for advertisers. It'll be tough for the new league, but certainly you'd have to give it a hearing because of the brains of the people involved."

The big test will be if NBC can get a 2 share in major markets in the dead sports-TV weeks from late June until Labor Day by showing the likes of Craig and former Florida State quarterback Thad Busby duking it out for Birmingham and Orlando.

Issue date: August 17, 1998

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