NFL is money in the bank

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:08 AM ET

The headlines in hundreds of newspapers yesterday told the story of how ESPN would, in 2006, be taking over Monday Night Football, an ABC institution.

The real eye-popper in the story, though, came later, in the seventh or eighth paragraph. That's where the various parts of the NFL's new TV arrangement were outlined, separating the world's most successful pro sports league even further from all others.

Starting in 2006, the NFL's total broadcast package will have increased by more than 50%, from $2.45 billion US this year to a total likely to top $4 billion.

These guys are hooked up with almost every network you can think of, short of Court TV. And, come to think of it ...

That translates into about $125 million in annual revenue per team before even one ticket is sold or one parking spot or one hotdog, or one overpriced jersey. The NFL salary cap, by the way, is in the $85-million range for the 2005 season.

Owning an NFL franchise always has been a licence to print money. Now it's a licence to print money faster.

Paul Godfrey has, for what seems an eternity, been championing an NFL franchise for Toronto. At every point along the way, his critics have suggested he's crazy because the cost would be so outrageous. Yet each time the price goes up, the potential revenues more than offset it.

"This is the best-run sports league anywhere," Godfrey said yesterday. "The franchises are competitors one day a week and partners seven days a week."

This is rather pointedly at odds with the way Major League Baseball, Godfrey's current association, does business. If baseball has a motto, it goes something like "Every man for himself."

In 1995, Carolina and Jacksonville were awarded NFL franchises at a cost of $140 million each. In 1999, the new Cleveland Browns paid $530 million to join the fraternity, followed by Houston in 2002. The franchise fee for the Texans was $700 million.

So, what would an expansion franchise be worth today, given the guaranteed income supplied by TV?

The NFL hasn't made any noise about expansion for a while but you'd have to think that it would be looking at as much as $1 billion to let somebody new into the lodge.

Obviously, Los Angeles is a gaping hole in the NFL's umbrella. But the league seldom makes an odd-numbered move.

"I still think Toronto will be the next city in the NFL after Los Angeles," Godfrey said. It would require a new stadium, of course, but when you're talking billions, what's another $500 million?

"When Jacksonville and Carolina were accepted as expansion teams, a lot of people thought it was too much money. As sports markets, these were cities less tantalizing than Toronto. (An NFL franchise) is a gold mine at the box office and a gold mine on the field."

WINDFALL

This additional TV windfall will surely cause the NFL a few more headaches in negotiations with its players this summer, but these are headaches every league should have. The NFL players' association is hardly a militant or cohesive outfit, ever since it was essentially broken by the strike in 1988. The league has a salary cap and no guaranteed contracts. It obviously can afford to throw more money at its players and it will. It's just a matter of how much.

Given that 10 years ago most people thought the NFL bubble had just about reached maximum inflation, today's numbers are staggering.

"Everyone said TV revenues were going down," Godfrey said. "They're not going down at all. Even in baseball, which doesn't have its act together the way the NFL does, they're not going down."

Back in the 1990s, Godfrey had a well-heeled syndicate of big-money men at the ready to ante-up and it's a good bet he could assemble another one in a heartbeat if the phone rang and Paul Tagliabue started whispering in his ear.

"I haven't quit yet," Godfrey said. "My job won't be complete until I see players in Toronto helmets running around out there in the NFL."


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