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NFL the only real winner in move to cable

Look for TSN to increase its National Football League content by acquiring the league's new, late-season package of eight games played on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Sources say negotiations between the Canadian sports channel and the NFL are almost complete.

Beginning next season, TSN will carry the Sunday (NBC) and Monday (ESPN) games as well as the U.S. Thanksgiving Day games and, almost certainly, the eight-game schedule.

But that's just part of the story. On Saturday, the NFL announced that those same eight games will be carried in the United States on its own NFL Network.

After talks with Comcast and Turner Broadcasting failed, the NFL decided to sacrifice a rights deal, which would have fetched $400-million (all figures U.S.) or more annually, in favour of using the games to market its channel. (NFL Network is carried in Canada by some distributors, but the live games will be blacked out.)

A look at the impact of the NFL's decision to place games on its own channel:

Comcast's U.S. cable channel, OLN, is a loser. OLN had hoped to acquire the eight-game package and use it as the foundation to build OLN into a national sports service, a potential powerhouse that some say would challenge ESPN.

The National Hockey League, which has a two-year rights agreement with OLN, is a loser. Without NFL games, OLN's growth will continue at a slow pace. The dream is over for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman; NHL telecasts won't be making rapid inroads on cable.

NFL Network, in operation two years, is a winner. It's available in only 35 million U.S. households, but now cable companies will be compelled to carry it. Its distribution could double, even triple, over the next year. It is speculated the channel, anchored by NFL games, could evolve into a multisports service and challenge ESPN.

Loser: football fans. They aren't likely to get much hard-hitting analysis from an in-house production.

Why did the NFL pass on a huge rights fee for the eight games? It can afford to. The league already rakes in $3.73-billion annually in TV money, more than the revenue earned by Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, NHL, NASCAR, PGA, LPGA and U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association combined.

CFL and NFL TV

It may be time for the Canadian Football League to consider airing its games on the NFL Network.

The CFL distributes its games, produced by TSN and the CBC, in the United States over a cobbled-together group of regional sports cable channels. The distribution adds up to about 70 million U.S. households.

But the NFL Network, which will grow quickly, has emerged as an attractive alternative. Carriage on the NFL Network would deliver the dedicated football fan to the CFL product.

Super Bowl notes

ABC's Detroit affiliate is anticipating a record local rating and audience share for Sunday's Super Bowl -- a 61 rating (percentage of televisions tuned into the game) and 83 share (percentage of televisions in use tuned into the game). Game 7 of the NBA Final last spring (Detroit Pistons-San Antonio Spurs) produced a 47.8 rating and 66 share in Detroit.

Amid speculation that Al Michaels will ask out of his ABC contract and move to NBC's Sunday night football broadcast to join John Madden, there is more speculation: Mike Tirico will call ESPN's Monday night games if Michaels leaves. And Tony Kornheiser, the Washington Post columnist and Pardon The Interruption co-host, will be added to the ESPN booth.

TSN's Chris Schultz, Rod Smith and John Lu are reporting for SportsCentre on the Super Bowl this week. For Rogers Sportsnet, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Jesse Palmer, Louis Jean and Jim Lang are filing reports.

whouston@globeandmail.com

Rating the weekend

EVENT NETWORKVIEWERSSKINNY
Friday
Golf. Buick Invitational TSN 119,000Above average for second round of a PGA tourney.
Tennis. Australian Open TSN 158,000Women's final draws TSN's top audience of the day.
Basketball. Raptors-BucksScore79,000The Score is averaging about 70,000 for Raptor telecasts.
Saturday
Tennis. Australian OpenTSN 90,000Okay Saturday afternoon number for men's semi-final.
Football. Senior Bowl TSN33,000Only for hard-core fans.
Hockey. Canadiens-Leafs CBC 1,490,000Up from season average of 1,450,000.
Basketball. Texas-Oklahoma Score5,000Big rivalry, but no interest except from hoops nuts.
Curling. Canadian junior championships CBC 239,000Good number for women's final.
Speed skating. Long track CBC 178,000Olympic buzz produces good audience.
Alpine skiing. World Cup downhill CBC 199,000Strong viewership for late afternoon.
Sunday
Tennis. Australian Open TSN 168,000Fairly strong tennis audience watches Roger Federer triumph.
Basketball. Kings-Raptors TSN195,000OT win by Raps produces TSN's largest NBA audience of season.

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