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NFL 2006: New Wrinkles On and Off the Gridiron

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NFL 2006: New Wrinkles On and Off the Gridiron

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NFL 2006: New Wrinkles On and Off the Gridiron

NFL 2006: New Wrinkles On and Off the Gridiron

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Two weeks before the start of the National Football League season, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis sizes up the status of the sport. He tells Robert Siegel about changes in Monday Night Football broadcasts; the difficulties with the development of an NFL cable network; a changing of the guard at the NFL's front office; and big news about kickers.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The start of the National Football League's regular season is still two weeks away, but if you feel like you're already being inundated with pro football, that's because you are. The NFL is televising more pre-season games than ever with new announcing teams getting plenty of attention, and the first new commissioner in 17 years is taking over.

Fresh from NFL training camp himself, Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins me now. And Stefan, the biggest change in the NFL could be a new television lineup. Monday Night Football, as we'd know it since the 1970s, is gone.

STEFAN FATSIS: Gone from ABC, which made it famous. It was still a top show on broadcast television, but a ratings decline made it expendable, just too expensive for ABC, so ABC's sister cable network, ESPN, picked up the franchise, and it's been getting headlines for hiring sportswriter/TV-and-radio blabber Tony Kornheiser as one of the announcers.

But the NFL will still air one game a week in prime time on a broadcast network. That will be Sunday night on NBC, which missed the NFL so much that it decided to spend $600 million a year to get back in. All in, the new TV deals that the NFL is broadcasting under this year are worth $3.7 billion a year.

SIEGEL: You mentioned Tony Kornheiser, whom I enjoy a great deal on ESPN, I should say. He's had some pretty tough reviews, even from his own paper, the Washington Post, about his Monday night performance. What's your assessment?

FATSIS: Well, he spent months talking about how bad he was going to do on Monday Night Football and how he never watched the games because they were on too late and he was in bed, and so far the truth is I think he's living up to those lowered expectations.

But not because he's bad at it, but because it's not an easy job trying to figure out what to say about actual games as they're happening when you've never done it before, especially when you're being paid essentially, as Kornheiser is I think, to talk about the game by not talking about the game, if you know what I mean. He's there to be funny.

SIEGEL: Because there's an analyst who talks about the game and a play by play man as well. Well, another big change is that the league decided to keep a handful of late-season games and put them on its own 2-year-old cable operation. I gather that particular plan hasn't worked out all that well.

FATSIS: No. The NFL is keeping eight games to show on Thursday and Saturday nights on its NFL Network. It passed up around $400 million a year from the established networks to take these games in house. The bet is that they'll be able to generate more from cable subscriber fees and advertising while building this network up.

And right now the network is in less than half of the nation's cable or satellite homes, and the big problem is that some large cable operators have balked at adding the NFL Network to their systems.

SIEGEL: Now the NFL's owners this month elected the league's first new commissioner since 1989. He's Roger Godell. His father was Charles Godell, one- time U.S. Senator from New York State, and he has been chief lieutenant to the retiring commissioner, Paul Tagliabue.

FATSIS: Yeah, he's an NFL lifer, actually. He started as a public relations intern with the league in 1982. The first big issue he's going to face is some acrimony among lower revenue club owners. They feel they're not getting enough shared money under the league's new collective bargaining agreement, not enough to flatten imbalances with the wealthier teams. These club owners are going to press for a revision in the labor deal and that's going to be a thorny issue for Godell.

SIEGEL: Well, just for a moment here, we'll talk about what goes on on the gridiron and the real story of this NFL season, which is the place kickers.

FATSIS: I will be watching them closely. A lot of kicker news. Adam Vinatieri, the guy that kicked those clutch Super Bowl field goals for the New England Patriots, he left New England. He's gone to Indianapolis. And the old Indianapolis kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, who was infamously referred to by Peyton Manning, the quarterback there, as that idiot kicker, he was cut after he missed a crucial field goal in last season's playoffs. He's gone on to Dallas. He's missed most of training camp with injuries, and that's annoyed head coach Bill Parcells's. Kickers in the news, I love it.

SIEGEL: And there was that hot shot place kicker in the Denver Broncos' camp this summer, Stefan. Tell us about that.

FATSIS: That would've been me. I did go through training camp. I'm working on a book, a sort of modern version of George Plimpton's Paper Lion. I was a kicker with the Denver Broncos. I made a bunch of 40-yard-plus field goals, but I made them in practice when the rest of the team wasn't watching, and when I got my change in front of the squad, I did not fare quite as well.

SIEGEL: You did not split the uprights.

FATSIS: I did not.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal, who joins us Fridays. Thanks a lot, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

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