American Football: Murdoch's expensive catch

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The Independent Online
IN A DALLAS conference centre at the beginning of December a group of the NFL's most influential figures met a delegation from Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network. They were watching English football matches. Murdoch was attempting his biggest television coup yet, and Sky Soccer was part of the sales pitch, writes Matt Tench from Atlanta.

Murdoch had decided that Fox, the channel he is trying to establish as America's fourth network, needed the credibility that the NFL would give it. The sport's television contracts were up and there was an opening.

David Hill, the Australian head of Sky Sport, was flown over and Fox went all out to impress the NFL's television sub-committee. As well as a detailed breakdown of the programming and marketing Fox proposed, Hill brought a highlights package of Sky soccer, complete with fancy camera angles and super slow-mo. By all accounts the committee was impressed.

Ten days later came an announcement that would shock America's television establishment and sports fans alike. From next September Fox would be screening the league's number one product, its NFC games. The deal would cost Murdoch dollars 1.6bn over the next four years. With NBC, ABC and two cable networks all renewing their contracts, CBS had been frozen out and would not be screening NFL games for the first time since 1956.

Mindful that its new venture needed an established figure to bring in the viewers, Fox persuaded John Madden, the best commentator in the business, to anchor its new team. At a price. Madden will be paid dollars 32m for four years' work, making him the highest paid individual in the game, more lavishly rewarded than any player whose exploits he will be describing.

'John Madden would have liked to have been here,' Mike Ditka, the

former Chicago Bears coach, said at a reception this week, 'but he's still counting his money.' Pat Summerall, Madden's co-commentator, has also signed for Fox, though he has had to make do with dollars 1.5m a year.

It is difficult to begrudge Madden his millions. A former head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, he brings

insight and enthusiasm to any game in equally large measure. His telestrated doodles are a national institution, a

sophisticated play dissected by a few lines and crosses, with Madden invariably intoning, 'You see you get this guy here . . .'

The NFL's attraction for Fox is simple. The game brings respectablity and audience. American Football is the most popular of all America's televised sports, and Murdoch is hoping for a knock-on effect that will increase the ratings for shows on after the games on Sunday night.

For all that Murdoch paid a premium price, far in excess of what CBS was originally contemplating to retain their contract, and some industry

observers expect Fox to lose more than dollars 150m a year on the deal.