NFL confident of healthy price hikes in next TV deals

NEW YORK Wed Nov 30, 2011 6:47pm EST

Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media, speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York November 30, 2011. The National Football League, fresh off a blockbuster television deal with ESPN, is confident it can win healthy price hikes when it sits down shortly to negotiate new contracts with CBS, NBC and Fox, Rolapp said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media, speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York November 30, 2011. The National Football League, fresh off a blockbuster television deal with ESPN, is confident it can win healthy price hikes when it sits down shortly to negotiate new contracts with CBS, NBC and Fox, Rolapp said on Wednesday.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League, fresh off a blockbuster television deal with ESPN, is confident it can win healthy price hikes when it sits down soon to negotiate new contracts with CBS, NBC and Fox, a top executive said on Wednesday.

"I think in the next year or so we will have these deals done," said Brian Rolapp, head of the NFL's media business, of impending negotiations with its broadcast partners on the Sunday package of games. The NFL's current contracts with CBS Corp, News Corp's Fox and Comcast Corp's NBC expire after the 2013 season.

Rolapp added that once those deals were done the league will look at selling the TV rights to a new package of Thursday night games.

The NFL in September announced an eight year, $15.2 billion extension with Walt Disney Co's ESPN for Monday Night Football. The deal, which included additional rights beyond just the TV broadcast, represented a roughly 73 percent increase over the previous contract.

"We think what ESPN paid is an indication of the strength of our product," Rolapp said, speaking at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York.

ESPN's willingness to pay what amounts to nearly $2 billion a year underscores the importance of live sports, and particularly the NFL, to TV networks.

Sports is almost always watched live by viewers, which is of immense importance to advertisers and separates it from most programming such as dramas and comedies that are often recorded and watched later.

The NFL has an exclusive negotiating period with partners CBS, Fox and NBC, whose current contracts collectively add up to about $2 billion a year, or the same amount ESPN alone agreed to pay under its new deal. After that it can open up talks with other networks, if necessary.

"Those are all great partners and we hope they remain partners," Rolapp said of the broadcast trio. "That's always our goal going into these discussions."

After avoiding some of the heavy on-field advertising of other sports such as MLS soccer, the NFL is now studying what would be a major sideline sponsorship, Rolapp said.

A deal should be struck before next season that could include rights to sponsor technology such as tablet computers and communications systems used by players and coaches, he said.

Rolapp said he is currently holding talks with a number of technology companies, though he declined to identify them. In the end, a deal could see coaches and players on the sidelines gathered around an iPad from Apple Inc. or an Android device by Google Inc, formulating plays or deconstructing defenses in front of millions of TV viewers.

"That is probably one of our most interesting opportunities," Rolapp said. "We have had lots of conversations and been approached by, or have approached, a wide swath of technology companies."

He added, "We want to make sure we get this one right."

As for the NFL Network, which the league launched eight years ago, Rolapp said that it could expand its current package of seven Thursday night games. He did not rule out, however, that additional Thursday games could be sold to another cable or broadcast network.

The NFL Network's absence from Time Warner Cable is likely to continue, however, as Rolapp said that discussions with the company over a distribution deal were nonexistent. While most major cable companies now carry the network, talks between the NFL Network and Time Warner Cable to end their standoff broke down earlier this year.

(Reporting by Paul Thomasch and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Peter Lauria and Tim Dobbyn)

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