William Taaffe reports on the NFL's new TV contract: On the idyllic island of Maui, where all dreams are supposed to come true, the NFL owners on Sunday confronted the harsh light of reality. The much publicized TV deal the owners accepted will, for the first time in league history, bring them a wee bit less from the great god of television than they received the previous year. The three-year package with the three major networks and ESPN totals $1.43 billion, which means the 28 teams will each receive $17 million per year, 3.3% less than they got last season. Hard times are ahead, insisted Cleveland owner Art Modell, who, along with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, negotiated the deal. Said Modell: "This should serve as a signal alarm to everyone involved—club owners, players, agents, all the people who participate in NFL activities—that quantum leaps of the past are really a thing of the past."
Those sound like fighting words to the NFL Players Association, which will meet next week in Los Angeles. Strike talk is moving upfield in a hurry, primarily over the issue of free agency, and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw thinks the new TV contract "probably increases" the likelihood of a walkout. "The money the owners lose from TV, they'll try to save with the players," said Upshaw.
The feeling here is that a less lucrative contract doesn't have to spell trouble. Huge increases in TV revenue invariably breed instability in sports labor relations. The richer the owners get, the more stubborn the players get. Indeed, the '82 players' strike was a direct result of Rozelle's hitting a five-year, $2.1 billion TV jackpot. The new deal can offer owners and players an opening for long-term harmony by creating the need for compromise.
A smaller contract was inevitable largely because the three networks lost a combined $75 million on the NFL last year. ABC will pay some $120 million a year, a savings of $30 million over 1986, by dropping its non-Monday prime-time games. NBC, saddled with the smaller AFC markets, apparently will pay about $125 million a year, or some 15% less than in '86. CBS won a 6% rollback to $150 million.
The most intriguing wrinkle in the new arrangement is the ESPN package, which very nearly offset the reduced fees from the Big Three. ESPN, which beat out HBO and others for cable rights, will televise eight prime-time Sunday games in the second half of the season. What caliber of games will ESPN get? In all likelihood, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Buffalo will show up a powerful number of times on cable. To take, say, a Dallas-Washington or Jets-Dolphins game from the networks would dilute the value of the network packages. Still, having the NFL will immediately increase the stature of ESPN.
Now, if only the players and owners can seize the chance for labor peace.
The San Diego Sockers have come up with a catchy slogan to promote their anticipated appearance in the indoor soccer playoffs, which they have won five years in a row: The Joy of Six.
In a recent item about salary arbitration (SCORECARD, March 2), reference was made to a Chicago hotel meeting at which neither pitcher Jack Morris's representatives nor Tigers management would pick up the room-service tab for coffee. Now comes a note from Steven A. Fehr, who was in the Morris camp and offers a bit of amplification: "The waiter who brought the coffee cart wanted the signature only of a woman whose name was unknown to everyone in the room.... I told him I would be happy to sign the check but could not sign it in the name of this unknown woman. The waiter seemed somewhat flustered and left."