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"Here's the replay. From the left of your screen, you can see Murdoch coming on the blitz. He's drawing a bead on Tisch, who thinks he's got all the time in the world, but nobody's picked up Rupert, and—boom!—he blindsides Tisch and strips the ball. Hey, that guy Murdoch didn't get to be in the Fortune 500 for nothin'."
That's how John Madden of CBS might have described the play by Rupert Murdoch that stunned the television sports industry last Friday. Fox, Murdoch's six-year-old network, grabbed the rights to televise NFC games, as well as the 1997 Super Bowl, away from CBS by offering the NFL $1.6 billion over four years, which was some $100 million a year more than CBS chairman Laurence Tisch was willing to spend. Boom!
And bust for CBS, which on Monday lost out to the incumbent, NBC, for the rights to televise AFC games. Despite a last-minute phone-lobbying campaign by Madden himself, the owners chose NBC and its four-year, $880 million offer over CBS's 13th-hour billion-dollar bid. Nearly as upset as CBS was the NFL Players Association, whose members' pay is derived largely from TV dollars. Even as NBC was trumpeting its victory, the NFLPA was threatening to hold up the deal. But if the arrangement stands, it would mean that for the first time since 1956, fans will not be watching NFL games on CBS on Sunday afternoons.
For Fox the NFC package means instant credibility. From his vacation home in Vail, Colo., a jubilant Murdoch told SI's Jill Lieber on Sunday night, "We're a network now. Like no other sport will do, the NFL will make us into a real network. In the future there will be 400 or 500 channels on cable, and ratings will be fragmented. But football on Sunday will have the same ratings, regardless of the number of channels. Football will not fragment."
Fox won the battle by offering more than just money. Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, a member of the NFL's TV committee, told SI's Peter King, "CBS has given the league 38 years and a great tradition, and we preferred the incumbent. We handicapped Fox; they had to be significantly better. But they were. The type of commitment they gave us, we felt, was above and beyond dollars. They said, 'We'll take this entity, the NFC, and build our network around it.' It's a tremendous commitment on their part, and we just couldn't look past it."
As for Madden, don't worry, Mr. and Mrs. Big Fan. He won't be out of a job for long. "We will certainly make an offer to John," says Murdoch. "He will bring us even more credibility."
As it turned out, the day of infamy for CBS was Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, when Fox made a presentation to members of the TV committee at the GTE Conference Center in Dallas. Speaking for Fox were David Hill, an Australian who is the president of Murdoch's soccer-oriented Sky Sports channel and who is also married to a devout Denver Bronco fan: Lucie Salhany, the chairman of Fox Broadcasting; and Chase Carey, executive vice-president and chief operating officer and a man not to be confused with Fox's unlamented former late-night talk-show host.
Murdoch had tried twice before without success to buy into the NFL, in 1987 and again in '90. But this time the Fox contingent offered to make the NFL the centerpiece of the network. The committee members were shown a tape of a Sky Sports telecast of a First Division soccer game in England, and, says Jones, the quality of the production compared favorably with that of any NFL game on U.S. television. The committee also heard about Fox's plans for year-round NFL programming, including a children's show, and international opportunities. According to Jones, "They talked about using our players on the network a lot, maybe even on their shows." Great! Shannen Doherty meets Leon Lett.
Fox was suddenly very much in the game. Out of loyalty the NFL told CBS and NBC that the league was taking Fox seriously. But, says one source close to the negotiations, "I don't know if CBS was complacent or just slow, but they weren't as astute as NBC. So the NFL began to steer Fox more toward the NFC."
Three days after the Dallas meeting, the Fox people made eye-opening offers for both conferences, but they preferred the NFC with its larger markets, nine straight Super Bowl championships and 20% higher ratings, and they underscored that preference with a staggering bid. Says Murdoch, "CBS, we knew, was grudgingly prepared to go over $300 million [a year]. But we didn't know how much. Would they go to 320? 350? So I said. 'Let's go for the knockout bid. The $400 million.' "