A magnate's sphere of influence: UNITED STATES

RUPERT MURDOCH is not a name you would expect to carry much weight among the popcorn-chomping crowds who fill American football stadiums, but mention it to a true aficionado of the game, and it will prompt a bout of tooth- sucking.

He was the one, they'll tell you, who bought the television rights to Sunday-night National Football League games, after CBS had been screening them in the United States for 38 years, helping build the sport into a giant industry, a television spectacle, and a continuing national passion. He was the Australian media mogul turned American citizen who paid all that money for a four-year deal - $1.58bn, one and a half times what CBS paid for the previous four years.

When Murdoch delivered a flying tackle to CBS by acquiring the rights for games in the National Football Conference (the stronger of the two conferences) in December 1993, it made front-page news headlines, partly because of the money involved, and partly because it was such an audacious move, proof-positive that when he said he wanted to make Fox Broadcasting into America's fourth television network, he meant it.

It paid off. Fox hired CBS's top commentators (paying one, John Madden, $30m over four years) and technicians. Although ratings were lower than CBS's, and analysts predicted that Murdoch could lose around $500m during the four-year contract, the acquisition gave his network's credibility a sharp boost. Fox stations soared in value and Murdoch soon found himself in a strong position to recruit more affiliates to add to his chain.

Within five months, Fox triumphantly announced a deal in which 12 big- city stations switched their affiliations from CBS, NBC, and ABC to his network, a move which shook his network rivals to the core. To their undoubted relief, his advance has since been slowed by an investigation by the US Federal Communications Commission into the possibility that he broke the foreign ownership laws when he first began building his US television empire.

Nor does it appear that Murdoch's sudden interest in American football stops at the shores of the United States. Observers believe he is playing quarterback in a global game in which he will use his other outlets in an effort to make it of international interest. If all goes well, this could one day start producing world-class sums of money - which is, of course, what Rupert Murdoch really means by sport.

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