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NFL: Modify Mondays

National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is laying the groundwork for the next NFL TV contracts, saying the league is "likely" to schedule more than one game to be televised on Sunday and Monday nights.

"In the current television universe, having only one game in a time slot is a problem," Tagliabue said during a speech at the Federal Communications Bar last week. "In the old days, when you had a 24-0 game, so what? Today, if it's 14-0, bing! the fans are out of there."

The idea isn't the first one the NFL has had to boost evening NFL telecast ratings. Earlier this year, the league floated a plan to move late-season marquee matchups from Fox or CBS on Sunday afternoons to ABC on Monday nights. CBS and Fox made it clear that they weren't happy with such a plan, and it died quickly.

Tagliabue was light on specifics last week, but he did say that additional games on Sunday night and Monday night (and skewed to the West Coast audience) might be attractive. But how attractive the plan would be to the contract-holders for the Sunday-afternoon games is questionable. The plan amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul, said one network executive.

The current NFL TV-rights contracts, which run through the 2005 season, total $17.6 billion. CBS is paying an average $500 million a year; Fox, an average of $550 million a year; ABC, an average of $550 million; and ESPN, an average of $600 million.

Despite Monday Night Football's diminished ratings (total households are down 4% although the young demos are up), the program is consistently a top-10 performer. In the 1970s, when ratings were much higher, the games didn't even crack the top 20. It's the improved performance that has some wondering why the NFL is so fascinated with driving Monday Night Football
ratings. One network executive says the only logical explanation is that the NFL's ego is somehow entangled with the prime time ratings.

Ironically, the league's concern about scheduling enticing prime time games may be a result of its drive for competitive parity. Five years ago, it had a fair chance of scheduling good games for MNF
and the ESPN's Sunday-night games. But the league's successful efforts to increase parity have made it all but impossible to guarantee that a MNF
matchup that looks good on paper in August is going to be a ratings winner in October. The past three Super Bowl champions weren't even considered to be among the NFL's top five teams heading into the seasons they eventually won.