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Original Issue

Millions, billions, rozillions

The NFL's new $2 billion TV deal means $14 million annually per team

Give or take $40 million (with an M), the magic number is $2 billion (with a B). That, we are reliably informed, is the gold-plated, gargantuan grand value of the NFL's five-year contract with the three commercial TV networks that the league owners ratified on Monday. Actually, it would be more accurate if we measured that massive sum in something called rozillions—beginning with a P for Pete. For, once again, the wiliest sports commissioner of them all has gone to the network treasuries and come back loaded with untold riches. Whereas the contract that expired at the end of last season annually awarded each of the 28 NFL teams something like $5.8 million, the new one will give every club more than $14 million a year.

Over the past several weeks there were reports that the negotiations had hit numerous snags and that even the silken diplomacy of Rozelle had been tied in knots by recalcitrant network executives. In fact, things proceeded quite swiftly—though not always smoothly. For openers, Rozelle stunned almost everyone with the magnitude of his original demands. "We had been expecting a 100 percent increase," says one network executive, "but he hit us with 150 percent from the start—and that was a surprise."

As always, Rozelle dealt with the networks one at a time. First to settle was ABC with its monumentally profitable Monday Night Football package. This time, Rozelle sweetened ABC's deal by giving the network its first Super Bowl—number XIX in the year MCMLXXXV. The price for a single Super Bowl in the package averages out to $16 million. In the previous contract the cost was about $6 million. ABC's total commitment to the NFL for the next five years is close to $680 million. The ABC deal was closed quickly, with a minimum of hard bargaining and no hard feelings.

Next Rozelle turned to NBC, widely considered the weak sister among the networks. Both CBS and ABC had their best NFL ratings in 1981, but NBC, with its somewhat less appealing assortment of AFC teams in smaller cities, had fallen slightly behind its best ratings season of 1980. NBC tried mightily to convince Rozelle that he should shift some of that rich prime-time scheduling from ABC to NBC, but he refused. Ultimately, NBC knuckled under and wound up with a deal—including Super Bowls in 1983 and 1986—that cost roughly $640 million.

That left CBS. It was a tougher nut than the other two. For one thing, last March CBS shelled out $48 million to secure rights to the NCAA basketball tournament for three years. Then, in August, the network spent $131.75 million to share college football with ABC for four years. So CBS Sports was feeling a bit strapped, and when Rozelle informed the network that its part of the new NFL contract would be a whopping $770 million, CBS claimed that its sales department couldn't find enough advertising dollars to support such an expenditure. Indeed, the network let Rozelle know it would drop the NFL if he stuck to his outrageous price.

As one insider tells it, "They stood eyeball to eyeball for a while. Then Pete blinked." So it seems. Instead of holding to his demands, Rozelle dropped the price by some $50 million. CBS salespeople were told to scour the TV marketplace again, and, lo and behold, they found that ABC and NBC were successfully selling spots for NFL games at increased rates. Thus, CBS returned to the NFL fold at approximately $720 million. CBS will telecast the Super Bowl in 1984 and 1987.

And what, exactly, has Rozelle given the networks in return? Nothing very revolutionary. He increased the number of commercial minutes per game from 23 to 24, gave CBS and NBC an extra preseason game and awarded ABC one more prime-time game on a night other than Monday. Also, he assured the networks that for the duration of the contract no form of cable or pay TV would encroach on the Big Three's monopoly.

Several top network executives consider that guarantee highly significant. However, many of them also think Rozelle is simply being his usual cagey self. Says Bill MacPhail, former head of CBS Sports and now vice-president of sports for the Cable News Network, "As usual, Pete's timing is just about perfect. Right now, there is almost nothing cable could do for the NFL anyway. But cable will be ready, and five years from now Pete will be right on the mark."

Possibly so—but possibly not. During these negotiations Rozelle was heard to say, "This is the last time I'll be doing this." It's hard to believe. Yet, if this was indeed Rozelle's last TV contract, be assured that he has left a priceless legacy—worth rozillions...and rozillions...and rozillions....


When CBS made Pete blink, it saved $50 million.