Next TV Deal Could Affect Free Agency

The Vikings head into free agency with as much money to spend as anyone. But the next TV deal could entice teams without money to spend in hopes of a higher salary cap in two years. The fledgling NFL Network could become a major player in making that happen -- making this year's free agent crop either the beneficiaries or the victims of the NFL's version of the futures market.

Every year, free agency is a crap-shoot for NFL teams. Those who are pressed tight against the cap make unpopular cuts to get under. Those with money to burn spend freely. Those who understand the cap, like many think the Vikings do, spend as much as needed but don't overspend.

The history of the salary cap is short, but telling. Teams like the Cowboys, 49ers and Packers all took advantage of the early stages of "caponomics" to win titles. Deion Sanders was a gun for hire who helped both the Cowboys and 49ers win championships. But, as time went on, teams learned that investing big money on 10-year veterans would jump up and bite you in the end. The Cowboys, for example, had to eat a lot of money to get past the Emmitt-Aikman-Irvin threesome that returned Dallas to its glory days. It was how business was done – pay the piper for the short term and hope for the best.

What bailed out those teams was the ever-increasing salary cap that allowed the Cowboys to take a one-year, $10 million "dead money" hit on Aikman and remain competitive. The growth of the industry, thanks in large part to the FOX Network raising the bar on TV contracts, prevented the teams that spent heavily to absorb the hit. That has changed … for now.

As the Class of 2004 hits the free agent market, each NFL team faces the same question – one that is critical to how different organizations will dive into free agency this year. That question is: will the current prosperity last? The current NFL TV deal is up in two years following Super Bowl XL in February 2005. The instincts of those in charge of the purse strings for those teams will go a long way to determining how the free agent market will play itself out.

Many of us at Viking Update have followed with interest the inception of the NFL's own network. Before jumping into the NFL pool, FOX wasn't available in many cities around the United States. While the network has sustained losses for its NFL package, it immediately became the "fourth major network" – making money off of shows like "The Simpsons" and reality programming. The NFL Network isn't available in 75 percent of the country, but it could be the lynch pin to the future of pro football.

The emergence of FOX, as well as cable outlets like ESPN and TNT, has proved the NFL is big enough to go the route of pay-per-view. When FOX first emerged, it outbid CBS for the rights to NFC games. When the last TV deal came up, CBS outbid NBC to get AFC rights, and ESPN outbid TNT to get the entire Sunday night package. With the current contract with the networks set to expire in two years, the issue becomes will the competition for contracts continue to rise?

If so, the third year of any contract signing teams make will be offset by an increase in the salary cap – lessening the hit of a $5 million cap number if the cap rises by $10 million in 2005. If the numbers remain the same or even drop, any long-term contracts could become more burdensome. While the malaise will become more of a front-burner issue next year, many teams are weighing the options of the future before heading into free agency. Those who believe the future is bright will spend accordingly. Those who don't will hesitate.

That is where the NFL Network comes in. It wasn't created to provide NFL Films a venue to show Jaguars highlights 100 times. When the next network deal comes up, don't be shocked to see the NFL Network try to get a piece of the action – Sunday night games make the most sense. Such a move will open the door to pay-cable for an outlet for the league. If successful, the days of "free TV" for the NFL may be over.

While baseball tries in vain to get its house in order, basketball tries to draw interest before the playoffs and hockey looks to avoid contraction of at least six teams, the NFL is in a position to solidify its fan base – as well as extort it.

The NFL Network is probably not available in your area through your local cable provider … for now. Two years from now, it may be a very different story. Get ready to start paying for the NFL. If it becomes a reality, teams spending for the Class of 2004 free agent crop will be investing in the future. If it doesn't, the Class of 2006 will find a different landscape. Which do you believe? That will be the showdown facing owners and general managers in the coming weeks and months.

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