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Last Thursday night, 48 hours after the NFL and four TV networks had finalized deals that shook the sports and media worlds, some expensive dominoes started to fall to the benefit of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. He was puttering around his Manhasset, N.Y., house, preparing to attend a fund-raiser in Manhattan with his wife, Cheryl, when the phone rang. CBS Sports president Sean McManus was calling to ask him to work for CBS on its NFL studio show or as its lead game analyst.
Intrigued, Esiason called one of his agents, Fred Fried, who reported another development: ABC had just called him to offer Esiason a seat in its Monday Night Football booth. "They're in a hurry," Fried told him. "They want an answer." However, by leading the Bengals to four victories in their last five games, Esiason had won the starting quarterback job and been promised a new contract by Cincinnati. So another Esiason agent, Jerrold Colton, contacted Bengals president Mike Brown to get his best offer.
A night of dizzying cell-phone negotiations left Esiason with three eye-opening options, not bad for a man who only two months earlier had been a backup quarterback on a 3-8 team.
Cincinnati was prepared to offer the 36-year-old Esiason a two-year contract worth $8 million. Although contract terms weren't nailed down, CBS certainly would have paid Esiason millions and likely would have allowed him to pick whichever one of its two jobs he wanted, and there was the possibility he would also become the sports anchor for the network's flagship station, WCBS in New York City. ABC would kick Frank Gifford out of the booth and slide Esiason between Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf for about $7.5 million over five years. One of the NFL's hottest passers last December (quarterback rating: 105.0) agonized. Twenty hours after it all began, it was official; he was going to ABC.
"It all happened so fast," Esiason said last Saturday, while relaxing with his son, Gunnar, during NHL All-Star Game festivities in Vancouver. "I was a little frustrated with the Bengals, because if Mike had made a preemptive strike or really recruited me, I'd have stayed because I still wanted to play. But this Monday Night Football job might never come open again, and I'm introduced to 20 million people without my helmet. The NFL's new network contracts sent things into orbit."
The shock waves were felt leaguewide. The current four-year TV deals, which expire after the Pro Bowl on Feb. 1, paid a total of $1.1 billion annually. The new eight-year pacts are worth $2.2 billion a year through 2005, and the league (but not the networks) can reopen negotiations after five years. The salary cap went up $700,000 per team last season; it should rise no less than $7 million in 1998, to about $49 million.
Predictably, pedestrian players began to strike gold immediately. Last Thursday, New England Patriots offensive lineman Max Lane—best known for getting thrown around by Reggie White in last year's Super Bowl—re-upped for $11 million over five years. A four-year veteran, Lane made less than $200,000 in 1997.
"I don't think the players understand yet how big the ramifications are," says free-agent cornerback Ryan McNeil, who played this season for the St. Louis Rams. "Last year there wasn't much money to sign free agents, but there's money this year. Even the teams in trouble with the cap will find a way to spend money."
As is the case with every new TV contract windfall, there are ways NFL spending will be influenced, except this time the increases in salaries figure to be stunningly higher than ever before.
The star system will become more pronounced. Whenever the NFL has experienced a cash influx, salaries for the high-end players have risen more dramatically than those for roster bottom-feeders. Even though the minimum salary for fifth-year players is expected to increase from $275,000 to $400,000, star quarterbacks will soon be $10 million men. "Now NFL stars will be paid more like NBA players," says agent Hadley Engelhard, who represents one of the top free-agents-to-be, Packers running back Dorsey Levens.