NFL considering flexible schedule late in season

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- It could be a while before the NFL
finalizes the prime-time portion of its television packages.

The current eight-year contracts worth $17.6 billion run out
after the upcoming season, but Fox already has agreed to a
six-year, $4.3 billion deal to keep the NFC games on Sundays, while
CBS will keep the AFC games for $3.7 billion.

However, the league isn't close to any agreements for its
biggest moneymaker, the Sunday night/Monday night packages. ABC and
ESPN combined paid $9.2 billion for the prime-time games.

But Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC and ESPN, has not offered
anything acceptable to the NFL to renew the contracts. So other
players have become involved.

What is the league looking at?

"A better question might be, 'Is there anything we have not
explored,' " commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Wednesday at the
league's annual meetings. "We've looked at ESPN for Monday nights,
other networks for Sunday nights or Monday nights, ESPN for Sunday
nights, split packages on Monday nights."

Switching networks on Sunday and Monday nights also is possible,
particularly with the league's desire to have some flexibility in
moving games from the afternoon to prime time. Such time switches
work far better when they are Sunday afternoon to evening rather
than Sunday to Monday night.

Tagliabue also would like to see NFL Network involved as a
carrier of live regular-season games. The league is selling a
Thursday night/Saturday night package that has attracted interest
from some outlets that don't currently televise the NFL. But if the
numbers don't work for the league, it could put those late-season
matchups on NFL Network, which currently is available on DirecTV
and selected cable outlets.

As for the flexible schedules, Tagliabue said teams would get
the opportunity to play themselves into the prime-time game by
having stronger than expected seasons. A certain number of matchups
will be set, but others will be flexible, particularly down the
stretch of the schedule.

Asked why the Oakland Raiders, a 5-11 team, was placed in the
high-profile Thursday night season opener at New England, Tagliabue
cited the Raiders' national popularity, their West Coast fan base
and their apparent improvement in the offseason.

"We were looking for a matchup that could have national
appeal," he said. "New England as the Super Bowl champion and the
Raiders with a history of success ...

"There's also a freshness to that matchup."