ESPN signs 5-year deal for arena football

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NEW YORK -- ESPN added a new page to its playbook Tuesday, forging a five-year rights deal with the Arena Football League that also includes a minority stake in the league.

ESPN takes over the AFL from NBC, which carried the league under a revenue-sharing agreement but declined to renew its contract after it expired this year.

The sports network plans to put many of its platforms to work with the AFL, including carrying 17 regular-season games and nine playoff games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC beginning in March.

"It's more than just a television deal," said AFL commissioner David Baker in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning.

Financial terms of the deal weren't announced. ESPN will have a nonvoting stake in the 19-team league, which will begin its 21st year in 2007. Baker said five companies had expressed interest in AFL rights, but the league's board decided in September to exclusively negotiate with ESPN.

"It's important ultimately to both sides because this is a deal that in the end there is more money to be made by growing the league than just by broadcasting the media rights," Baker said. "Therefore it becomes a true partnership, and ESPN becomes strongly incentivized to promoting it and growing us."

The 2007 schedule begins Sunday, March 4, with a series of regional games in the early afternoon on ABC, continuing on ESPN and ESPN2 for 17 weeks, mostly on Monday nights. ArenaBowl XXI will air Saturday, July 29, from the New Orleans Arena, with at least nine playoff games airing on ESPN and ESPN2 from late June to late July.

For ESPN, the AFL deal means it can extend its "Monday Night Football" strategy from the NFL to the AFL, which has several teams owned by NFL owners and also has NFL pedigree from the likes of Mike Ditka, Ron Jaworski and John Elway.

John Skipper, ESPN's executive vp content, said the AFL will help ESPN become a "year-round football platform."

"We've had, as you know, a terrific year with Monday night, we've had a terrific year with college football, a wonderful experience with the NFL draft ... (but) there have been some gaps," Skipper said. "I love the idea of filling in those gaps, and I think our fans will as well."

ESPN's involvement doesn't mean that there won't be other TV deals ahead for the AFL, including for Friday nights and regional cable and Internet. Those announcements have yet to be made.

Also forthcoming will be ESPN's announcements of talent, though Skipper said that producer Jay Rothman has been named to head the telecasts.

"We're committed to being innovative, experimental and doing a first-shelf production," Skipper said.
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