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By Rudy Martzke USA Today
With Monday Night Football having a solid chance of shifting to ESPN in the six-year NFL TV deals starting in 2006, Fox, NBC, CBS and possibly the WB Network are likely to vie with ABC for a Sunday night broadcast network package, according to network and league officials familiar with negotiations. NBC has not carried NFL games since the 1997 season. The WB Network, launched in January 1995, never has carried NFL games.

A switch of the Sunday night package to broadcast and the Monday package to cable figures to bring the NFL higher total rights fees. The league has received sizable fee increases in renewals of contracts with CBS and Fox for Sunday afternoon games and with DirecTV for a satellite subscription package; those deals will give the league a combined $11.5 billion.

ESPN, which has made money on NFL Sunday night telecasts, is likely to boost its rights fee from the current average of $600 million a year to as much as $1 billion a year.

Competition among NBC, whose prime-time schedule ranks fourth in the important 18-49 age group, ABC, Fox and CBS could push the price for Sunday night games to an average of $550 million-$600 million annually. ABC, which has lost $150 million a year on Monday Night Football, has been reluctant to offer close to its current average of $550 million a year.

"ESPN can certainly afford to step up to the Monday night package, and their production is certainly equal to the best of what networks have done on the NFL," sports television consultant Mike Trager said.

In a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup telephone poll of 589 sports fans published Tuesday, 76% said it would not make any difference if Monday Night Football is on ABC or ESPN.

"If Sunday night did become available, I certainly think NBC and Fox would show great interest," Trager said. "With NBC struggling this year in prime time, the Sunday night package might make more sense to them now than in the past. And the acquisition of Sunday night would certainly strengthen Fox's prime-time schedule."

If Fox got Sunday night games, it could easily handle a flexible schedule for prime time, shifting games from Sunday afternoons to nights. CBS likely would start Sunday night games at 9 p.m. ET, after popular 60 Minutes and Cold Case.

"There continues to be very strong interest from several entities in all of our prime-time packages," NFL public relations vice president Greg Aiello said Tuesday.

Officials from ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS declined to comment.

"NFL programming consistently delivers," said Turner Sports president David Levy, whose parent company, Time Warner, owns the WB Network. "If the opportunity arose at the right financial model, we would invest." TNT had the first half-season of the NFL's Sunday night cable package from 1990 to '97 until ESPN bought all the Sunday night games.

ESPN, Fox, TNT, NBC-owned USA and Comcast are interested in the NFL's proposed eight-game Thursday-Saturday package that has been valued at $200 million-$300 million a year. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week the league is considering becoming a partner in a new cable channel televising NFL games, likely with the TV entity that secures the Thursday-Saturday package.
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