Money Matters, Big Time

Article excerpt

Byline: Vito Stellino

P.T. Barnum was a rube compared to the city slickers in the NFL.

They're collecting billions of dollars from the television networks, and look at this weekend's two prime-time matchups -- 5-4 Kansas City at 1-8 Houston on Sunday night and 4-5 Minnesota at 2-7 Green Bay on Monday night.

Those games show that the parity-era NFL doesn't have enough attractions to fill prime-time spots.

But that isn't stopping them from creating even more.

The New York Times reported last week that networks are offering millions for an eight-game Thursday night-Saturday night package the NFL wants to create during the second half of the season starting next year.

Forget that the NFL tried a Thursday night package in the past, and it wasn't successful because fans weren't accustomed to watching games then.

"I never thought eight games would be so valuable," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

What works in the league's favor is that new cable networks want the exposure of having the games. For example, OLN, which Comcast converted from Outdoor Life Network and now broadcasts NHL games, is among the bidders for the NFL.

"We would love to have the NFL," Jeff Shell, the president of Comcast Programming, told the New York Times. "We're thrilled to be still talking."

Said New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft: "We have a lot of options."

So with all this money pouring in, times couldn't be better for the NFL, right?.

Not so fast.

The league is discovering that the more money is available, the more difficult it is to divide it up.

It might be hard to believe, but the NFL appears to be preparing for a confrontation with the Players Association after having labor peace since 1987.

According to published reports, the owners last week discussed playing without a salary cap in 2007 and then having a lockout in 2008 when the current contract expires.

The NFL's version of events was slightly different. According to an e-mail from league spokesman Greg Aiello, the owners focused on "what the rules would be should there be no extension and we do in fact go to an uncapped year and have no deal in 2008."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said at the meeting that the owners remain "very far apart" with the union. They also haven't reached an agreement among themselves on sharing local revenue.

There have been predictions that cooler heads will prevail, and the two sides will finally realize they're better off with labor peace. But the union has said that if it reaches free agency next March without a deal, it will go for the uncapped year. The clock is ticking.

All this doesn't bode well for a team such as the Jaguars, because the small markets would have a tough time competing without a salary cap.

With all the money pouring in, it still seems almost impossible to believe that 32 owners and approximately 1,800 players can't find a way to divide billions of dollars. Yet the saber rattling continues, and neither side seems ready to blink.

TITANIC TASK

The Tennessee Titans start a stretch of four home games in five weeks today against the Jaguars.

Since Tennessee is out of the playoff race at 2-7, the results of the games don't mean a lot. The important thing is how many fans show up to watch.

Titans games are sold out for the season, but the team is on its way to a second consecutive losing season, and the question is whether its fan base will stick by in bad times. If the fans don't show up, the no-shows could turn into no-buys, and the team could have trouble selling tickets in the future.

Like Jacksonville, Nashville is a small Southern market with no pro football tradition, and the fans were spoiled because the team won big early. The Titans could become another small-market team with revenue problems and a candidate in the Los Angeles derby if the NFL ever gets its act together. …